A MAJOR town-wide drive is being launched by Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston to get everyone in the town online and benefitting from the opportunities and life improvements it offers.

A Middlesbrough Council report outlines the problems suffered by many in the town without digital access in relation to impacts on access to jobs, health provisions, social contact, education and exposure to poverty.

The Digital Inclusion Strategy approved by the Council's Executive on Tuesday (January 11) promises to ensure that all residents are supported to overcome digital barriers and maximise the social, health, education and economic benefits of enhanced digital access.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the benefits and often necessities of being online whether for remote learning, food shopping or keeping in touch with friends and family via video technologies.

Read more: 'Young' Covid patient dies in James Cook hospital, doctor reports

Early in 2021 Middlesbrough was believed to be the first town or city in the country to pledge every child will have access to an internet device to support their education.

The Council announced it was to spend £350,000 on laptops and tablets for more than a thousand children who were at risk of being left behind in their school work.

Mr Preston said: "Not being connected or able to be on line is a genuine form of poverty - it will be seen as akin to not having the heating on in your house.

"I'm really pleased we are focused on this - a year ago we were the only council in the country that went to every school to ask which kids were struggling to get online in an effort to ensure they had access to devices and connectivity.

"We didn't reach all those in need, but it made a real difference and remains a priority for us."

The plan would have five key aims which are: ensuring children and families are able to access digital learning and no pupil misses learning.

Ensuring job seekers are able to access digital skills and employment support.

Ensuring individuals (particularly elderly people) are able to engage with others to reduce isolation.

Ensuring local businesses are supported to trade digitally.

Ensuring town-wide connectivity plans support Middlesbrough's digital ambitions.

The report approved by Middlesbrough Council's Executive on Tuesday, recommending the adoption of the Digital Inclusion Strategy says: "A lack of digital skills and access can have a huge negative impact on a person's life, leading to poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy, increased loneliness and social isolation, less access to jobs and education.

"It can mean paying more for essentials, financial exclusion and an increased risk of experiencing poverty. People who are digitally excluded also lack a voice and visibility in the modern world, as government services and democracy increasingly move online.

"It is those already at a disadvantage - through age, education, income, disability, or unemployment - who are most likely to be excluded, further widening the social inequality gap.

"Middlesbrough's high levels of multiple deprivation factors contribute to and are exacerbated by digital disparity among residents. Within this context, it is becoming increasingly important that access to digital devices, connectivity, skills and services is sufficiently expanded and tailored to meet the needs of our population."

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