Charities warn of ‘devastating effect’ as most vulnerable households left without access to web. The scale of the problem is staggering,” says Helen Milner, the chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, a charity that tackles digital exclusion in the UK.

One woman living in London said she was having to choose between food and data. She spends almost half of her weekly household budget on top-up credit to allow her teenage daughters to access homeschooling resources.

“We live on just over £100 a week and before lockdown I was spending around £10 a week on top-up data and now it is costing around £30-40 every week” she said.

“We only have one phone between the three of us and I have to limit the time that they are online because I can’t afford any more. I’m also having to leave the house to buy data cards, which makes me very worried. I can’t get online long enough to send emails to the utility companies. I’ve told them we can only eat twice a day because I can’t afford any more food. ”

While the UK’s major internet providers have agreed to remove data caps on fixed-line broadband during the coronavirus pandemic, this does not apply to the estimated 1.9 million households with no internet data or the 25.9 million pay-as-you-go customers, who make up over a quarter of all mobile phone subscriptions in the UK.

Vulnerable groups such as elderly people, asylum seekers and refugees and households living in poverty are hit hardest by more expensive pay-as-you-go tariffs because they cannot afford wifi at home or fixed-term contracts.

“It’s not just about loneliness and isolation,” says Jane Caldwell, the chief executive of Age UK East London. “We had one man last week who hadn’t eaten in over a week because he didn’t have enough money to make a phone call and didn’t know who to go for help. We have elderly people who can’t get on council shielding lists because you have to register online. Others have ended up critically ill in hospital who have to beg to use a healthcare workers device just to make contact with their family.”

In Manchester, a community network said almost 75% of the 1,000 women they support are completely reliant on pay-as-you-go data services.

“Women in situations of domestic violence are particularly isolated,” says Rose Ssali from the Mama Health and Poverty Partnership. “Most of them have no access to their phones or the internet. We’re now trying to find funds to buy pay-as-you-go handsets with a bit of credit on them and hiding them in the food packages we’re dropping off so at least they have a way of calling someone if they are in trouble and need help. ”

Jo Dougherty, group leader for the Happy Baby Community, a group working with asylum seekers and victims of trafficking, said it had been trying to find ways to keep pregnant women and new mothers connected to vital healthcare services.

“It’s no exaggeration to say this will fast become a life or death situation” she says.“The women we work with have literally no money. They cannot cannot call midwife services or the triage at the hospital when they go into labour. After birth they are alone in their rooms with a newborn, no money, and no way of calling or going online to get any support.”

In Stockport, Nicola Wallace Dean from the Starting Point Community Learning Partnership, has been urgently raising funds to try and get top-up data cards out to households in her community.

“We’ve started seeing signs go up in windows where people are begging someone to get some help or call a charity on their behalf because they can’t go online to find out where food banks are, call the GP or get their medication,” she said.

Marsha de Cordova, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, said it was unacceptable that people were having to choose accessing the internet and buying food.

“There is no more crucial time to ensure that everyone is connected and has access to the digital services, wifi and resources that they need,” she says. “The government must act now to reduce unequal provisions of phone and internet service during this crisis and ensure that no one is left behind as a result of digital exclusion.”

The government has recently launched a range of initiatives to try to tackle digital exclusion exacerbated by the pandemic. These include pledges to provide some disadvantaged teenagers with laptops and a new campaign, Devicesdotnow, that asks businesses to donate devices, sims and mobile hotspots.

“We recognise the importance of people being connected and that’s why we’ve already taken action to broker a major deal with the mobile and broadband companies to provide essential support for vulnerable consumers who may be affected by coronavirus,” said a spokesperson for the the department of digital, culture, media and sport.

Yet anti-poverty groups such as the Aple Collective, a network of people who have experienced poverty, say not enough is being done.

“We welcome the positive and compassionate moves being made by government and the telecommunications industry to seek to buffer the effects of Covid-19 on those on low incomes,” they said in a statement. “However, what is little mentioned so far are the voices and responses from those who are completely excluded from the digital world.”