In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unique collective experience of a nationwide lockdown, a spotlight has been shone on the issue of social isolation and loneliness and has highlighted some of the long term costs (mental, physical and economic) to our public services if left unaddressed or not treated as a fundamental part of our health and social care planning.
Over the past 5 months, new sections of the population, including school-aged children, the out-of-work, and the recently bereaved, have experienced varying degrees of confinement and disruption to their normal daily lives.
For many of those who were already at risk of social isolation prior to 19th March, the lockdown may have proved the tipping point. And for the 9 million people estimated as already being isolated or lonely, the lockdown will have amplified their sense of abandonment. In a survey conducted between 3rd April and 3rd May, the ONS found that young people were severely impacted with over 50% of those aged between 16 and 24 whose wellbeing had been affected by lockdown experiencing loneliness in the past seven days.
However, this has also been a period which has seen a heroic response in some quarters by organisations, grassroots groups and individuals concerned about the toll the lockdown would have. These range from volunteers making tens of thousands of calls to have conversations with those living in care homes, to neighbours connecting for the first time through street WhatsApp groups, to efforts to improve digital literacy among the elderly to help them connect with loved ones, to an arts study being run by Manchester Metropolitan University researchers to gather young people’s perspectives on lockdown and loneliness.
In light of this, Breaking Barriers Innovations (BBI) and the Connection Coalition organised a webinar on the 30th of July entitled “A Little More Conversation, A Little More Action: Joining Up our Approach to Social Isolation and Loneliness Around Community and Place.” This was borne out of the shared belief that social isolation and loneliness needs to be prioritised, not just by voluntary sector organisations, to become a recognised priority for any organisation concerned with the economic and health impacts caused by social isolation.
We were delighted to have over 200 people from over 150 organisations sign up for the event demonstrating the shared belief that this an urgent issue to address.
Lord Patel OBE, Chair of BBI, and Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister and an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, opened the session by acknowledging the huge universal impact that Covid-19 has had. Total government expenditure on the response has topped £190bn and is in the region of £3,000 per person for every UK citizen, exceeding the entire health budget projected for 2020-21. Physical distancing has resulted in both social isolation and loneliness becoming more visible and relatable problems for the entire population. Encouragingly, we have seen a huge mobilisation of volunteers who have countered some of the negative impacts of the pandemic.
Dr Jon Bashford, Director of Research at BBI, followed the opening remarks and presented BBI’s work, in partnership with NHS Solent Trust, Health Education England and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, in developing a city-wide action plan to address social isolation and loneliness in Portsmouth. This work is part of a national programme on place and the social determinants of health. Focused on three northern wards in Portsmouth, BBI’s research found significant challenges for residents in accessing services in the city centre due to poor public transport and trying to navigate a complex health and care system. There were a number of challenges faced by the workforce too, including a lack of focus on early help and prevention, inability to identify at-risk individuals, and difficulty working with local communities. BBI’s action plan proposes balancing the existing functional approach that buffers against the negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness with a new structural approach that promotes and sustains the degree of natural social integration in communities.
Download BBI’s report entitled “Connecting People and Place: An action plan for addressing social isolation and loneliness in north Portsmouth here.
Sue Harriman, Chief Executive Officer at NHS Solent Trust, followed up Dr Bashford’s overview of BBI’s work in Portsmouth by describing how Portsmouth is uniquely poised to act on the recommendations made in the BBI report given the integration between local public services. She cited how a single clinical IT system enables the Trust, along with partners in social care, primary care, and the voluntary sector to work more effectively together through the sharing of information on patients. An integrated approach allows for a personalisation of services to meet needs and move away from the lens of disease traditionally adopted in the NHS. Sue cited the ambition for the Trust to listen to, engage and build connections with people that they serve to carry out the recommendations in BBI’s report.
Eleanor Roy, Health and Social Care Policy Manager at CIPFA, spoke about changing the mindset in the approach to prevention. Currently, there is an unbalanced distribution between organisations of the costs and benefits associated with investing in prevention and the benefits may take generations to appear at a time when there are urgent priorities to address. Eleanor suggested that there is a need to look past organisational boundaries and identify shared objectives based on getting the best value for the place-based public pound. Creating a clearer vision and common language between organisations will only help to inform better decision-making.
To read more about CIPFA’s work on why a culture change is key to helping local organisations to better evaluate long-term investment in prevention, please visit their website to download their report entitled “Evaluating preventative investments in public health in England”.
Sarah White, Head of Public Policy at Sense, was the final speaker and addressed how individuals and families with complex disabilities experience high levels of social isolation and loneliness. She provided the example of how two deafblind sisters were subjected to hate crime on the train during lockdown when they lowered their face masks to communicate with one another. The disabled community is often forgotten or ignored but events like this webinar (which was live captioned) catering to those that are deaf or hard of hearing has a huge impact in being inclusive. Making events and activities more inclusive will enrich experiences for everyone.
Kim provided the closing remarks and emphasized how encouraging it was to see the work being done from the bottom-up and the pace of response from the voluntary sector during the pandemic. She noted how digital inclusion projects were crucial during lockdown and that, despite not being a substitute for meeting friends and family face-to-face, technology was an asset for those at risk of isolation. However, there is a need for this to be supported by top-down policy change on how Government approaches loneliness. A cross-sector approach including Central and Local Government; the NHS; the voluntary sector; and the private sector remains the best way to prevent and tackle incidences of isolation on our communities.
All the speakers acknowledged the need to build on the momentum generated by the wide viewership and engagement that the event generated and BBI intends to carry out a 4-month study in 3 – 6 locations in England to capture:
- Effective responses to loneliness during the lockdown
- Challenges faced by different types of organisations
- How innovative approaches during the lockdown can be scaled up where appropriate
The findings from this study will be presented in a similar webinar event before the end of 2020 in order to support intermediate challenges organisations face and sustain long-term investment in addressing social isolation and loneliness.
Lord Patel closed the webinar by stating that at the next event he would like to see a little more conversation but a lot more action!
Keep in touch
If you were unable to join us, you can access a recording of the webinar here and the slides accompanying the various presentations here.
Feel free to get in touch with the BBI team with questions or follow up by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org