Retrain unused NHS volunteers to teach digital skills in lockdown, urges think tank

  • 11.9 million Britons lack the digital skills they need for everyday life 
  • Lockdown measures risk leaving most vulnerable behind as they fail to access the goods and services they need 
  • The majority of the 750,000 volunteers signed up to support the NHS are yet to be called into action 

In a commentary published today, the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC) urges the Government to set up a nationally coordinated volunteer service to teach digital skills to those most at risk of digital exclusion during the lockdown. 

In the UK, around 11.9 million people lack the digital skills they need for everyday life. Older adults, who are more likely to be at higher risk of contracting or developing severe symptoms of COVID-19, are also more likely to be digitally excluded, with just 47% of adults aged 75 years and over recently having used the internet. This means a significant proportion of people self-isolating may be stuck in their homes with limited options to avoid social isolation, get essentials and stay safe. 

ILC, the UK’s specialist think tank on the impact of longevity on society, warns that the current pandemic has made the consequences of digital exclusion more severe and that failing to equip people with the necessary digital skills they need could significantly exacerbate existing health inequalities. While many people are using the internet and making use of new apps and technologies to access essentials, contact healthcare professionals and socially connect, those who are digitally excluded may have to risk their lives by physically going outside to access the products and services they need.  

While there have been efforts by businesses and local government to make products and services more inclusive and useable during the lockdown, ILC calls on Government to coordinate a nation-wide volunteer service, making use of the NHS volunteers who have yet to be called into action, to address digital exclusion and the growing inequalities it could incur. 

Sophia Dimitriadis, Research Fellow, ILC argues: 

The digital divide is very real. And it’s not just preventing people from downloading the newest app or shopping online, but in the context of the ongoing pandemic, it is putting the lives and health of the digitally excluded on the line.” 

“If we fail to equip people with the digital skills they need, digital exclusion, often linked to social exclusion and poor health, will exacerbate ongoing health inequalities. This is simply not acceptable. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot of goodwill out there and people want to help. Businesses and charities across the country have been working hard to support those left behind, and the response to the call for volunteers to support the NHS has been overwhelming. But we can’t afford to leave this to chance.” 

“We need a concerted effort by Government to support the digitally excluded. With the untapped potential of the majority of the 750,000 volunteers signed up to support the NHS, let’s organise a nationwide service to ensure the most vulnerable in society aren’t being further left behind in these challenging times.” 



For press queries, please contact Lily Parsey at or 07400 294694.  

The full commentary “Straddling the divide: Digital exclusion during COVID-19 and beyond” is available from

All references are available in the commentary. 

Examples of organisations that have quickly or accelerated the adoption of existing innovations to respond to the needs of those faced with digital exclusion fast: 

  • Parsley Box, a food delivery service, with over-the-phone, as well as online delivery options, predominantly targeting older consumers;  
  • PillTime, an online pharmacy, which dispenses and delivers NHS prescriptions to people’s homes for free; 
  • Visionable, a company that creates digital tech solutions to connect health services; 
  • Alcove, a company which creates personalised care tech solutions for people to live independently in their homes and a series of innovations made by local government in Greater Manchester.  


About ILC 

The ILC is the UK’s specialist think tank on the impact of longevity on society, and what happens next. 

Since our inception, we have published over 250 reports, organised over 300 events including the annual Future of Ageing conference. 

We work with central government, local government, the private sector, and professional and academic associations to provoke conversations and pioneer solutions for a society where everyone can thrive, regardless of age.