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Lonely Britain: Covid's pandemic of solitude

Prasun Sonwalkar/Dubai
Filed on September 23, 2021
Rueters

The Minister for Loneliness- a unique portfolio created in the context of political violence - is leading efforts to address the growing scourge, as covid curbs enhance isolation accross age groups in the UK

When did you last send a hand-written letter to a friend or a family member? The act may seem strange to millennials in the age of digital communication, but many remember the personal touch such letters used to bring, even if hand-writing often displayed an interesting range of styles, from the artistic to barely legible. Those from the Indian subcontinent of a certain age remember the thrill of receiving ‘inland letters’ or ‘postcards’ from the friendly neighbourhood postman; some still use the envelope to write hand-written letters, but their number is fast dwindling. But the missives witnessed a revival of sorts during the Covid-19 lockdowns in Britain, when millions of people hunkered down in homes for prolonged periods, many alone and adrift, craving human contact. Encouraged by a campaign initiated by the Boris Johnson government, a large number of hand-written letters were posted, when Royal Mail stamped them with a ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’ postmark.

Leading the initiative was Diana Barran, a politician with a unique role: Minister for Loneliness. She says: “Writing letters might be a slightly forgotten art but it’s more important than ever to connect with people, and putting pen to paper is an excellent way of making sure our friends, family and neighbours know we’re thinking about them. We all have a role in being kind and looking out for each other, and as some of us begin to regain some normality we cannot forget those who may need to stay at home for longer and could be at risk of feeling lonely.” Adds David Gold of Royal Mail: “Hand-written correspondence is a very powerful way of connecting and showing someone close that you care, particularly during these difficult and sometimes isolating times.” There are no precise figures, but there is much evidence that many people, particularly the elderly in care-homes, received a large number of such letters from friends and family, alleviating some of the loneliness, even if briefly.

Barran’s portfolio was created before the pandemic in 2018, but acquired a new impetus during the lockdowns. It was formalised by the then Prime Minister Theresa May in the context of political violence. Jo Cox, a popular first-time Labour MP from Batley and Spen, who campaigned for a solution to the Syrian civil war and other Middle Eastern conflicts, had established a cross-party commission on loneliness in 2016 to investigate ways to reduce loneliness, saying: ‘‘I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us. Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.” But soon after the commission was set up, Cox was shot and stabbed multiple times to death in her west Yorkshire constituency by a man with far-right views.

The commission she set up continued work after her murder and one of its recommendations was that the government should appoint a nominated minister to tackle the issue. May appointed the UK’s first Minister for Loneliness in January 2018 and launched the first ‘Loneliness Strategy’ containing 60 commitments from nine departments. She says: “Jo Cox recognised the scale of loneliness across the country and dedicated herself to doing all she could to help those affected. Loneliness is a reality for too many people in our society today. It can affect anyone of any age and background. Across our communities, there are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member. So, Jo Cox was absolutely right to highlight the critical importance of this growing social injustice, which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.”

The portfolio was continued after Boris Johnson formed the government after the December 2019 election.

Loss of social relationships

Loneliness is not yet considered a mental health condition by experts, but it is acknowledged that loneliness can increase the risk of mental health problems. Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship, which happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that individuals have, and those that they want. Experts say it is often associated with social isolation, but people can and do feel lonely in a relationship or when surrounded by others. Loneliness affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds — from the school child who struggles to make friends, to the new parent coping alone, to the older person who has outlived her friends and immediate family. Feelings of loneliness affect all at some point, the ‘Loneliness Strategy’ document says, but being lonely can become a serious problem when it becomes chronic — a day-to-day reality which, over time, can grind people down, affecting their health, well-being and damaging the ability to connect with others.

The wider, increasingly insular social context contributes to loneliness, with the ways people live, work and relate to each other shifting as individuals move towards a more digital society, as employment practices change. Individuals can work, shop, travel and interact with businesses and public services online rather than through talking to each other. Descriptions of loneliness vary from person to person. West Bromwich-based Craig, 47, was separated from his partner and the mother of his son. A hands-on father, he initially only had access to his son for two hours a week — an experience he describes as “like having your heart ripped out”. After a court battle, he gained more access to his son, but loneliness remained an issue. Craig described his story to the Jo Cox commission, before getting help: “When it first happened, for the first two or three months, I was sitting around the house, and you’re just sort of slumped. I was living by myself. I was used to having my son running around my feet. The house was so quiet. You feel so lonely. I ended up losing most of my friends too, it’s not just me and my partner who split — it was my friends too because there was so much animosity and they ended up feeling like they’d done something wrong.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which regularly tracks loneliness among several themes, says in a recent analysis that after a year of lockdowns, social distancing and restrictions on travel and gatherings, some groups have reported high rates of loneliness and poorer well-being, adding that levels of loneliness in Britain have increased since spring 2020. It found that unemployment is closely tied to loneliness levels during the pandemic, terming it “one of the most important factors identified through our analyses”. Several charity organisations focus on loneliness. According to Samaritans, loneliness and isolation were a concern in 29 per cent of emotional support contacts they offered since Covid restrictions began; it dealt with over 680,000 contacts, noting a 9 per cent increase compared to the previous year. During the pandemic, its volunteers provided support more than 700,000 times to men over nine months since the restrictions began. Contacts concerning loneliness or isolation were 2.4 times more likely to involve specific concerns about coronavirus.

Figures from the Campaign to End Loneliness suggest that, in total, 45 per cent of adults feel occasionally, sometimes or often lonely in England, equating to nearly 25 million people. It is particularly evident among the elderly; the number of over-50s experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6; compared to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 — a 49 per cent increase. Half a million older people go at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all; well over half (59 per cent) of those aged 85 and over and 38 per cent of those aged 75 to 84 live alone; and two-fifths of all older people (about 3.9 million) say television is their main company. According to the ONS, women reported feeling lonely more frequently than men. They were significantly more likely than men to report feeling lonely ‘often/always’, ‘some of the time’ and ‘occasionally’ and were much less likely than men to say they ‘never’ felt lonely. Higher percentages of older women report loneliness compared to men, while a greater number of older men (50+) report moderate to high levels of social isolation.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid referred to loneliness among the hidden social costs of Covid-19 in a speech in Blackpool earlier this month: “Too many young people have experienced loneliness and isolation these past 18 months…Loneliness and isolation are challenges faced by people of all ages. 3.7 million adults reported feeling either often or always lonely — that’s up by more than a million since the start of the pandemic. And for older people, for whom these experiences are nothing new, the pandemic has been especially difficult. People living in care homes, for example, have found it hard when they’ve been unable to hug, to hold hands or sometimes even just see the people they love. Social care staff have taken on difficult burdens of comfort and care.”

A commitment and a national priority

The growing incidence of loneliness has prompted the Johnson government to allocate millions of pounds to tackle the issue. Since the beginning of the pandemic, over £34 million of the £750 million charity funding package has gone towards reducing loneliness. Over 840 charities, community groups and grassroots organisations have received funds for projects that include songwriting workshops in Devon, dance classes in Bedfordshire and online chat services in Durham. The grants are being used in different ways — from covering the costs of technology and equipment to bringing people together in a safe and secure way, to strengthening services through training and development to provide long-term impact.

Barran says: “As we emerge from lockdown, it’s critical to remember that some people will remain isolated, and loneliness will not simply go away. This is why the government is committed to continuing to tackle loneliness as a national priority. The local organisations benefiting from these grants are a powerful way of connecting small groups of people across communities in England.”

A new evaluation of the projects says that beneficiaries felt that Covid-19 restrictions had exacerbated their feelings of loneliness. This included impact on routines, bereavement, moving to a different area before or during the pandemic, and fear of or uneasiness with technology. They also reported being reluctant to speak to friends and family about their experiences or problems, resulting in an increased sense of isolation and loneliness. Among those caring for others, some saw their responsibilities increase, partly due to shielding and difficulties adapting to restrictions. The beneficiaries also reported very little access to services or support at the start of the pandemic, with no service or support specifically designed to mitigate loneliness and social isolation. What support there was came from family members, friends, GP practices, religious organisations, local councils, charities, and volunteering groups.

Britain’s unique approach to tackling the issue has gone international. In June, Britain and Japan announced joint plans to overcome the stigma through regular meetings, sharing knowledge on loneliness measures and policy, and raising awareness in the two countries and within the global community. Barran and Japan’s newly appointed first minister for loneliness and isolation, Tetsushi Sakamoto, said in a joint statement: “Today, we face severe challenges posed by the global prevalence of Covid-19, and this has deepened our common understanding that ‘connecting’ people is key to tackling loneliness. We recognise that loneliness could happen to anyone and are determined that the stigma of loneliness must be overcome. Connecting family, friends, neighbours and supporters within our communities is a vital step to overcome loneliness, and our policies must support this.”

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)





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