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  1. Spotlight on Policy
7 January 2022

The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better

There are plenty of ways to “loneliness-proof” society.

By Naomi Phillips and Robin Hewings

Many of us will have struggled over the holidays – missing those closest to us thanks to Omicron, new restrictions, and our confidence about meeting others, and spending more unplanned and unwanted time alone.

We know that even before the pandemic one in five of us felt lonely always or often. Now, according to new research from British Red Cross, a third of people in the UK say they’ve found it difficult to reconnect with friends and family during the pandemic. Over a third (35 per cent) say they feel less connected to their community than they did before. And a quarter say Covid-19 has left them feeling more isolated.

Covid-19 seems to have driven a wedge between people and their communities and deepened feelings of isolation for some key groups.

Continuing uncertainty and new variants don’t help. Of those surveyed, two in five (43 per cent) people said they worried the Omicron variant will reduce their interactions with others. A quarter (23 per cent) of those who often or always feel lonely say they’re not confident they can cope with the impact the pandemic will continue to have on their lives.

The pandemic has affected us all, but the impact has been unequal and worse for some – often those already experiencing inequalities – and recovery will take time.

This can be a year for renewed action to connect communities and ensure people have the support they need to grow their confidence and rebuild meaningful connections with others. We all have a role to play, from neighbours checking in on each other to local pubs opening their doors to community events; from tiny organisations providing personalised support to big businesses reducing the stigma of loneliness in their workplaces.

Political leadership is really important here too. Previously, the creation of the minister for loneliness and a national strategy, with clear departmental commitments, were landmark moments, enabling change to happen at pace.

It’s heartening that MPs from across parties are more ready than ever to make change happen.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities, previously called the APPG on Loneliness, has been relaunched, with a fresh agenda firmly focused on what’s needed for a truly connected recovery. Supported by a new partnership of the British Red Cross, the Campaign to End Loneliness, and the generous Astra Foundation, the APPG’s new co-chairs – former loneliness minister Tracey Crouch MP and Kim Leadbeater MP, ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation – have already set out their stall. They want to bring their deep experience in tackling loneliness together with a passion for well-being, to take the loneliness agenda to the next level.

Through the APPG, MPs and civil society organisations have asked for action to “loneliness-proof” communities. This means we must identify those most at risk of being left behind by the pandemic and implement decisive actions to protect them from living disconnected and isolated lives. Efforts to connect communities need to be at the heart of Covid recovery priorities, including in the national levelling-up agenda, the regional integration of health and care, and local strategies for change.

We also want Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reaffirm his commitment to tackling loneliness, and to work with ministers, local government and charities to improve and invest in the community and social infrastructure needed to connect people.

This must start with a commitment to tackling loneliness at a national level by re-establishing a cross-government approach to tackling the issue, with long-term funding to identify and support those worst affected.

Looking at everything through a “loneliness lens” helps you to see some of the practical steps that can be taken at a local level – do public spaces work for everyone? Is there enough co-ordinated public transport, so people aren’t isolated? It needs a combination of investment in community and social infrastructure, and incentives to encourage more creative local solutions and action plans.

This isn’t about starting from scratch. Over the past five years there’s been a tremendous effort across civil society and government, including significant funding, to make positive change. However, we still have a long way to go. And we understand that urgent action must be taken to prevent more people from experiencing the deep and long-lasting feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness-proofing is important all the time, but the changes we put in place from now on can make a real difference to people’s well-being and mental health now and as we hopefully start to emerge from the pandemic.

Naomi Phillips is the British Red Cross’s director of policy and advocacy and Robin Hewings is the Campaign to End Loneliness’s programme director and co-secretariat to the APPG on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities.

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