How to stay connected when lockdown keeps us apart

Chief Executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, Catherine Anderson, joined Geri Scott, The Yorkshire Post's Westminster Correspondent, on the Pods Own Country podcast to discuss how, in the lockdown imposed by Coronavirus, the Connection Coalition is highlighting the issue of loneliness - and what we can do to make it better.

How to stay connected when lockdown keeps us apart

Summary

Chief Executive of the Jo Cox Foundation, Catherine Anderson, joined Geri Scott, The Yorkshire Post's Westminster Correspondent, on the Pods Own Country podcast to discuss how, in the lockdown imposed by Coronavirus, the Connection Coalition is highlighting the issue of loneliness - and what we can do to make it better.

In this podcast, they spoke about:

  • How "we have more in common than the things that divide us" is the thread that weaves through every single thing the Jo Cox Foundation does
  • The increase in concern about loneliness from around 16% of people considering it was an issue of concern to around 60%
  • The launch of the Connection Coalition, which is bringing together a huge number of organisations of different sizes, who are working around the issue of loneliness and social isolation
  • During a time when we are trying to be distant and we're seeing people less than we would normally, how this makes connecting with lonely people face-to-face much harder
  • The impacts on mental health well being and what does loneliness do to us

Listen to the Podcast

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Podcast Transcript

Geri Scott
Welcome to Pods Own Country, the Yorkshire post political podcast. I'm Geri Scott, Yorkshire Post's Westminster correspondent and I'm back with another episode this fortnight from lockdown. We're recording from home. So I must apologise for the drop in the normal high quality that you expect from us, but I'm sure we will get through it. I am joined today by Catherine Anderson, CEO of the Jo Cox Foundation. Catherine, thank you so much for coming on.

Catherine Anderson
Hello, thanks for having me.

Geri Scott
No, absolutely, absolutely. It's just strange times isn't it to be doing these kind of things? Have you been doing kind of a lot of down the phone kind of interviews and things like that?

Catherine Anderson
We've had about an average of I'd say about six zoom meetings a day and it does get quite exhausting. But yeah, getting used to the new normal like most people

Geri Scott
It's absolutely crazy. And doing all this stuff on zoom notes and as we record on Thursday, talking about bring the virtual Parliament back after the recess and getting everyone on zoom, I'm really interested to see how that is going to work out. Thank you very much for coming on, like I say we're really excited to have you on because we work with you guys a lot. And it's really kind of a positive thing that's come out something so tragic. So if we can, I'm sure so many of our listeners know all about the Jo Cox Foundation and why you guys are set up, but can we kick off with you explaining kind of who you are and what you do?

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I'm, as you say, I'm the chief executive at the Jo Cox Foundation and I joined the Foundation in September 2018. But obviously the Foundation came into existence, really, very soon after, after Jo Cox was murdered in June 2016.

There was such a huge outpouring of grief and also just solidarity, I think around Jo, her values and the incredible sort of amount that she had achieved in such a short time, not just in Parliament but in her career as a humanitarian. The Foundation was really set up so that something positive could come from such a tragedy, and also to really I think, try and sort of just live those values in projects in her name that have been huge since the Foundation was set up. So building Jo's legacy, keeping Jo at the very heart of everything that we do is really what the Foundation is all about. And in a relatively short time, I mean, in the four years or so since the Foundation has been in existence, we have achieved a huge amount.

We're a small team, based in Batley & Spen, our Yorkshire based team, and then a small office in London. And we work across the three main strands of work so locally on things in communities. We believe passionately that stronger, more integrated communities lead to happier more content communities, communities flourish, where we can, you know, really sort of overcome the differences that sometimes can lead to prejudice and negative attitudes that that can be so harmful.

Geri Scott
One of those sayings that you guys use a lot and was one of kind of Jo's, you know, passions that more in common, isn't it? It's something we hear very often.

Catherine Anderson
Yes, absolutely. I mean, Jo's phrase that "we have more in common than the things that divide us", that really is the kind of thread that weaves through every single thing we do whether it's in Yorkshire or a community elsewhere in the country putting on a Great Get Together or whether it's through the Jo Cox Memorial grant funding a project in remote Africa, that idea that we do have more in common is really as I say at the heart of everything that we do.

Geri Scott
You've done a lot work on loneliness as well haven't you? I used to work for paper in Norfolk called the Eastern Daily Press and remember doing a lot the work for you guys there as well about refugees and loneliness and things like that. It's something you're, you're big on.

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, definitely. So Jo actually before she was killed, she had the gum to really raise the issue of loneliness in and around Westminster and obviously beyond. Something that Jo would often do is to reach out across across party lines to collaborate with colleagues on issues that were really cross cutting and loneliness was one of them.

So with Seema Kennedy, the Conservative MP, Jo had begun to start a commission, which when she was murdered, and the foundation took on. Jo was sort of replaced by Rachel Reeves and in working together with Seema as the co-chairs of the Commission, but really, it carried out quite a seminal piece of research across the country, alongside 13 other major charities, who formed the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.

That research resulted in a report called "Connect for a Kinder Tomorrow" and that made recommendations to governments about how it could place the issue of loneliness at the heart of policymaking. It being, you know, an issue that does not discriminate anyone and everyone can be affected by loneliness. But it's also had an economic implications as a public health issue. And that resulted in the first ever government strategy on loneliness and the world's first ever government Minister for loneliness.

That was an issue that the foundation, with its partners, really turbocharged and just in a couple of years really brought the issue of loneliness to the forefront.

Geri Scott
And you know, I don't think it's something that we were... obviously it was happening on but I don't think as a society it's issue we were kind of acutely aware of before that. Everyone was just kind of, I guess getting on with it and people who were experiencing loneliness weren't necessarily talking about it or people didn't know that there were so many people in our society who can go days without really seeing someone but also of course loneliness isn't only seeing people as various types of loneliness out there. So that's become one of the bastions of bringing that to the forefront and it's something we've looked a lot at as well. And it's the figures when you see them are absolutely shocking.

Geri Scott
In all your reports, the one that opened my eyes most is you know you think of loneliness, you do think of the elderly and things like that, but it's not the elderly, is it? So many groups of people, I mean young moms is I already think of as well and all kinds of groups in our society. So yeah, definitely a big issue and from what I kind of know from some of the work you've been doing recently, it's something that we're kind of hearing a lot about at the moment with our current situation with the Coronavirus pandemic .Tell me a bit about what you've heard about that.

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, from the polling that we've we've seen, we know that the wider public now care a lot more about the issue of loneliness. I mean, quite significantly more than before. There's been an increase in concern from around 16% of people considering it was an issue of concern to around 60%. So a huge increase, yeah, massive jumping up literally in the course of a month.

I think what, you know, the fact Jo identified in very different times the fact that loneliness doesn't discriminate is now a truth that is all too familiar to people. People who never perhaps gave loneliness a thought or never thought it would affect them or thought it was a bit abstract or you know, there are lots of variables as you say to loneliness that can hit different people at different times. And there can be different junctures in a person's life that can bring on a temporary onset of loneliness or it can be very chronic. And it's not just older people who experience loneliness it can be, you know, the other large group who experience loneliness is the 16 to 24 year old group.

Really, what we're seeing now with the Coronavirus crisis is that loneliness has become something that actually affects us all. Because we may not necessarily be lonely ourselves but we will certainly have someone in our close network who will be through physical distancing at risk of being lonely through enforced isolation. So really the work that we're doing at the moment on the Connection Coalition is in part building on the back of the Loneliness Commission.

Geri Scott
This Connection Coalition is this new kind of thing that you guys have launched it with government and with other charities as well for this for this time.

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, that's right. And I think it's important to say, it's not a new thing, we're not sort of reinventing the wheel. But what we're doing is bringing together a huge number of organisations of different sizes, who are working around the issue of loneliness and social isolation. And what we want to do is to be able to bring those organisations together to really amplify and coordinate all the different efforts that are being made to reinforce the importance of meaningful connection and to mitigate those negative impacts of isolation on social and emotional well being.

I think that you know, the Government is rightly focused on clinical responses and how, you know, volunteers can really react to the most vulnerable in frontline situations. But in between those two things, there's a huge spectrum of work going on to really take care of people's emotional well being throughout this crisis. And loneliness is obviously a major factor. I mean, we are also thinking ahead about the fact that there's going to be a huge number of people who will be grieving, so bereavement is going to be a key issue to think about, and then, you know, the impact of what's happening on people's mental health needs.

Geri Scott
So what are the impacts on mental health well being and what does loneliness do to us as you know, social human beings. We love social interaction as a human race, we love to speak to people, we love to be with people. So what does loneliness do to us? What is the impact?

Catherine Anderson
Obviously the impact can be, it can be very personal. So it will have a negative impact on people's mental health. Someone doesn't have to be alone to be lonely. I think that's another important thing to say. You can be in a very big family, but you can feel desperately alone. And so it can have an impact on the people around you. It has physical health implications. You know, the oft quoted comparison, it's as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, which is data that comes from the Department for Health. That also links to the economic cost of why tackling loneliness has a knock on positive effect on the pressure that we put services on, so it is important to tackle it.

I think, you know, there are incredible charities up and down the country who are attacking loneliness and really innovative and interesting ways from, you know, intergenerational programmes, getting young professionals together with older people, for example. An awful lot of loneliness, charities will operate programmes which depend on face to face interaction. So the big problem during Coronavirus is how can you tackle loneliness at a time actually, we've can't be in the safe room together or we can't go to the local village hall or something. That is a real challenge.

And then, you know, when we talk about delivery and digitising programmes, that's all well and good, but we need to remember that many people are not digitally included. Covid-19 is actually really highlighting the digital haves and the digital have nots. I think there are gaps beginning to show now. It's not just that elderly people often are not digitally literate, but you know, younger people, particularly from low income backgrounds or don't have access to the internet as each of us might and there's also for example a school schooling gap between some of us who don't have that degree of access and yet school their kids at home.

Geri Scott
Absolutely, we had Emma Hardy on last episode actually, who was saying, you know, she's hearing a lot from deprived families who are trying to homeschool their children, but they can't maybe pay for the app that a lot of more affluent families can maybe afford or they don't have any equipment or don't have a reliable internet connection. Or maybe they've got maybe two or three children and there's only one laptop share between them. And yeah, similar things are being kind of exposed by this crisis, which are already problems but are exacerbated now

Catherine Anderson
I kind of went off on a tangent there. But yeah, I think digital exclusion and loneliness are really relevant. And we're seeing that the tech for most people right now is literally a lifeline. But for many, it's not. So I think it's really important that we don't we don't forget about that.

Geri Scott
Absolutely. And I suppose I'm interested to hear what you're hearing from people so far. So if they are getting in touch with you or one of the other charities involved in the coalition, what are they saying to you? How widespread is loneliness because of this social isolation that we're obviously having for all the right reasons, what are people saying?

Catherine Anderson
Well, I mean, we actually some of our team members who are based in Batley are working together with Kirklees Council and their community organisation so this is our More in Common Batley & Spen group, which Kim Leadbeater is the chairman of and I'm sure you know all about their brilliant work. So we're acting as a conduit for requests for support and connecting them with hyperlocal groups in the area. So matching needs with support now, it is the case that loneliness is coming up as an issue. I know that one of our volunteers spoke on the phone to someone for about 30 minutes the other day and that was the only communication that they've had with someone over the course of that week. There are going to be lots and lots of cases of that.

I think what we also have to be aware of that means lots of intersecting issues as well. So someone may have underlying health problems, they might have difficulties with their income and with getting hold of their foods and their prescriptions and things like that, and on top of that, they will be experiencing isolation and loneliness. So what we're seeing I think, is also cases where there's a cumulative effect of, you know, just all these little things happening. And I think that it's really hyper local groups, like our More in Common group in Batley & Spend and other amazing groups springing up, for example the mutual aid groups and church groups and individuals as well.

You know, they've got the ability to be right there on the ground to listen to needs to respond to needs, but I think where as a national charity we can support is, what we hope to do through the Connection Coalition is that, you know, we will be able to show what best practice looks like so that there are tools and resources that smaller groups will be able to access and use, and again, not just through the Coronavirus, but I think what's important is if we can sort of bring the circle to completion, beginning from the work that Jo began, the Loneliness Commission work, you know, the government's work on strategy and where we're at now, we're seeing loneliness really amplified as an issue and it's under the spotlight almost as never before. What we want to make sure doesn't happen, is that people forget about it when they think everything's okay again. That's actually what we're able to do in this very acute situation is to really, very quickly see what's working and what works best and what tools can be replicated and then shared across the country. So I think the Connection Coalition does have a really important role to play as we kind of come out the long tail of the Coronavirus crisis as it is now.

Geri Scott
Absolutely and I think if there's any positives that we can take from this devastating situation that we're all kind of living through at the moment, it does seem to have really strengthened community cohesion, in some ways, I would say. In my local neighbourhood alone, there's been kind of Facebook groups pop up and you know, someone made a post in there who lives far away and their mother lives in our community is vulnerable, and they say, she can't get out to the shop, can anyone help? And in 5 minutes there's 10 offers from the people saying yeah I'll do her shopping for her, just let me know where she lives. It's been quite humbling and it's nice to see. And I mean, I don't spend my life living by quoting the Prime Minister, but he said himself didn't he that there is such thing as society. And it's been really interesting to see and in quite uplifting as well.

And I suppose before we kind of wrap up, I would like to know if you've got any particular tips that we can pass on to our listeners for staying connected in this time, because, you know, I think we've made clear throughout our chat today that this can hit anyone. This isn't just if you live alone, this isn't if you've been, I don't know furloughed from your job so you're not talking to your colleagues as much. This isn't just for kind of an elderly person, you said yourself that you could be in a house with your whole family and feel quite alone. So what can we do to help us stay connected to each other and to society during this time?

Catherine Anderson
I think that there's a huge amount of signposting out there. I think, you know, one of the things is for those of us who have the ability and the luxury of being able to access information that we as a society are mindful of the fact that people can be lonely and that there are ways that you can raise the issue of loneliness with people in a very sensitive way.

So for example, I would signpost people to the government's Let's Talk Loneliness website, which is a really interesting hub of ideas about how you can tackle loneliness among people, people around you, give advice on how to cope, how to start a conversation, how to identify what's making you feel lonely.

Obviously, at a time when that can't go to a local group or an activity, I mean, often, you know, there's practical stuff that you can do and it can be hard I know to sort of take that step to do it. But GPs a much better but signposting talking about the issue of loneliness and social prescribing was a big recommendation of the government strategy that leads you to think in a more joined up way about how they could signpost people at risk of loneliness or suffering from loneliness to activities that could help.

So in normal times that is happening, but meanwhile, I mean, the Samaritans, the Red Cross, Age UK, the Campaign to End Loneliness, these are all charities who can help. They've got support lines, they've got numbers that you can call to get advice from volunteers on the other end of the line. But I think the big question is, at a time when we are trying to be distant, and we're seeing people less than we would normally, it just makes all of that so much harder. By no means do I have all the answers, but I'm hopeful that the Connection Coalition will start generating really interesting ideas very, very soon.

And then I mean, I know the Yorkshire Post has done a huge amount on loneliness and I think that the role of the local press and local radio stations is enormous. It sounds as if the Secretary of State and DCMS are taking this really seriously, so I'm hoping that you know, the work that you've done at the Yorkshire Post can act as a real inspiration to other regional papers and radio stations and podcasts and things like that. So, I think I think we need to take a whole society approach to it. And, you know, I just, as I say, I'm really excited to see what kind of country we are at the end of this. You know, I think there's a lot of fear, obviously, but there's a huge amount of room for hope as well.

Geri Scott
Take it as an opportunity to bring something positive out of it at the end.

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And I think I think everyone's capable of empathy. And the thing is we need to show that you can be empathetic and togetherness and solidarity is just as important outside of the crisis as when you're in the middle of a crisis.

Geri Scott
Absolutely, absolutely. Well, what an uplifting message to leave it on. It's hard to find sometimes in these Coronavirus times, but I do feel kind of positive about how things are going to be after this now.

Catherine Anderson
Yeah, we'll certainly do all that we can and we're proud to do it in Jo's name of course, to make sure that you know, something positive can come of it. I do have a high high level of hope that our communities will be stronger at the end of this.

Geri Scott
Well, thank you so much for coming on, Catherine. I'll let you get off but it's been so interesting to hear about what you are doing and good luck with all.


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