The biggest stories of 2020 – part two

Written by Sam Trendall on 31 December 2020 in Features

PublicTechnology completes our round-up of the most read and significant stories of 2020

Credit: Sollok29/CC BY-SA 4.0

Yesterday we published the first part of our run-through of the biggest and most widely read stories we have covered in 2020 – including the challenges posed by misinformation, the widespread switch to smart working, and the changes to the procurement landscape that this year.

Below we complete our list with the three biggest stories of 2020.  We begin with a topic that may now seem something of an old friend 


The EU Settlement Scheme
The process of the UK leaving the European Union might not have taken up quite as much of our attention in 2020 as it did in the prior year. But the government’s work to deliver Brexit – which relies heavily on some major tech platforms and programmes – continued to be a major story for PublicTechnology this year.

Our third most-read article of 2020 was actually published in the closing weeks of 2019, when we reported that the app allowing EU citizens to apply for settled status would – finally – be available on iPhones, almost a year after the technology was first available to some EU citizens on Android devices.

The fact that hard-copy settlement documentation will not be available has long been a source of controversy and complaint; and the move towards a digital immigration system will accelerate in the coming years, with the Home Office indicating in February 2020 that it intends to ditch all physical immigration documents

It is thus crucially important that it gets it right on the digital platform underpinning the settlement scheme – including ensuring that everyone that needs to apply for status does so, and that the most vulnerable are not disadvantaged by the platform.

These major challenges may have taken something of a backseat this year, but they will persist well into next year and beyond.


DWP ends payments to Post Office card accounts
As much as we report on how the future will be shaped by cutting-edge developments like artificial intelligence, data analytics, and virtual reality, it is worth remembering that there are many citizens that continue to rely on much more dated technologies. And that removing the option of using them to access vital services is a decision that government cannot afford to take lightly.

Our second-most read story of the year – a stand-alone development that formed part of no wider trend or issue – was the news, in May, that the Department for Work and Pensions had decided that it would no longer allow new benefits or pensions recipients from collecting payments via Post Office card accounts. The system is due to be phased out completely in 2021.

Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey said that the cost of the contract – which concludes in November 2021 – provides “poor value for taxpayers”, and that “uptake of accounts in the last year has been exceptionally low”.

But there are still 900,000 people that use a Post Office card account to collect benefits or pensions. This means that, within the next year, government needs to ensure that the equivalent of the collective populations of Newcastle, Nottingham and Belfast have an alternative means of receiving essential financial support.


Combatting coronavirus
Almost every story we have told or lived through this year has been about coronavirus – even if was ostensibly about something else. So it is very little surprise to see the pandemic emerge as our biggest story of the year.

We have covered hundreds of instances of government using tech in its response to Covid-19, but the earliest examples – perhaps before we all developed a severe case of information fatigue – are the most read.

Number one was among the very first; a little while before the UK went into lockdown; on a day when there was little remark on the fact that 50,000 people gathered to watch a football match at Anfield, we ran a story about Public Health England launching an online tracker for citizens to keep track of coronavirus statistics. At that point alarm was rising that there had been new confirmed cases for 11 days in a row – increasing to a running total of 382.

At the end of the following week, on the day that prime minister Boris Johnson ordered pubs to close their doors, came another of our most-read stories of 2020, as we covered the news that the NHS had launched an online service for citizens to obtain "isolation notes" if they had to take time off work.

Four days later, on the day after the announcement of a national lockdown, we ran a feature – also in the top 10 of our most-read articles of the year – examining whether the government might “use some form of mobile phone location-tracking to try and trace the spread of coronavirus”.

Three months later we were still, essentially, asking the same question, when we reported that the government had ditched work on its contact-tracing app, after discovering that it did not work on iPhones. But not before over £12m had been spent on suppliers. A system, based on the technology jointly developed by Apple and Google, was finally launched across the country a further three months on.

Another three months later, and this story is still the one that defines all others.


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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