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Appy to help, but we all still need the human touch

22 August, 2019

David Tobin at Walden Books

THE long queues that have formed out of Camden’s Citizens Advice Bureaux for the best part of the past decade have been an unwelcome reminder of what life is really like in austerity Britain.

Walk-in services at the CAB’s offices, in Prince of Wales Road and Robert Street, have provided a crucial and reliable port of call for thousands of people frustrated by legal aid cuts and the ongoing public sector squeeze.

Those struggling with loss of benefits, the red tape of “reform”, housing and immigration crises, have been able to drop in for expert advice on their problems.

The fact this crucial service is not secured with ring-fenced funds from central government is nothing short of a scandal.

But, as its chief executive says, this is the world we are living in. What is the importance of this face-to-face contact in the digital age? Sensitivity and understanding, for starters.

Today, tragically, a walk-in service feels like a remnant of a bygone era. The Town Hall stopped its counter services many years ago.

Tenants often contact us about not being able to reach someone with housing issues.

Many have got used to losing their rag on hold on the phone, and are genuinely amazed if they get through to an “actual human”.

GP surgeries are moving in the same direction with app-based health advice and Facetime appointments.

Hospitals repeatedly urge patients not to just show up at A&E. High streets are in terminal decline as businesses shun the high cost of renting, preferring to take orders online.

Supermarket checkout staff have for many years been edged out in favour of machines and monotonous recorded voices.

Deliveroo is, through its “Editions” service in Swiss Cottage, encouraging restaurants to move off the high street, and run faceless takeaway services from an industrial site that may as well be on the Moon. Facial recognition software is being employed all around us, notably in King’s Cross, adding to the general state of paranoia on the streets.

Of course, technology can make people’s lives easier. But while the internet is seen by many to be connecting people, it has also left many feeling more alone than ever before. Camden has one of the highest proportions of elderly people living alone in the country. For many, face-to-face meetings – whether it is at the CAB or with a stranger at the bus stop – are the only time humans get to feel human.

The owner of Walden bookshop, now in its 40th year speaks this week about a surge in sales of second-hand books to young people. And that, if anything, is a reason to be cheerful.

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