Guest post by Graham Pendlebury

Loneliness Strategy and Covid-19

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24 April 2020 by Graham Pendlebury

Loneliness Strategy and Covid-19

The Government’s Loneliness Strategy

Loneliness has always been a problem for society. Everyone feels lonely from time to time, but for some people the problem can be chronic or even feel overwhelming. The issue has come to greater prominence in recent years and is one of those rare issues where there is broad cross-party agreement that government has a role to play.

Building on excellent work done by the Jo Cox Foundation and other civil society groups, in October 2018 the then-Government published a strategy called A Connected Society: a strategy for tackling loneliness, and a progress report was published in January 2020. The strategy relates to England, but there are similar initiatives elsewhere in the UK. It has attracted the attention of policy makers and media commentators around the world. I was proud to contribute to the strategy as lead official for the Department for Transport, recognising that transport can play a big part in alleviating loneliness.

The core goal of the 2018 strategy is to significantly reduce the number of lonely people over the next 10 years, and there are three headline aims – (i) to end the stigma associated with loneliness, (ii) to build the evidence base on the causes and remedies of loneliness and (iii) to support civil society (defined broadly) in tackling loneliness.

The original strategy had no fewer than 60 commitments, ranging from direct funding support (£11.5m initially, with subsequent smaller top-ups) to a variety of communications campaigns, evidence-gathering initiatives, data analysis, local pilot schemes and specific policy commitments such as social prescribing.

The question that now arises is what impact the Covid-19 pandemic will have on the delivery of the core goal and the headline aims. The extraordinary circumstances in which we now find ourselves, where terms such as “social distancing” and “self-isolation” have entered our common vocabulary, might suggest that loneliness itself could reach epidemic proportions.

Issues

First, some positive considerations. Covid-19 provides opportunities for progressing the three headline aims. Removing the stigma associated with loneliness was already being tackling effectively in the 18 months prior to Covid-19, and the current situation is reinforcing the message that it is OK be upfront about feeling isolated and/or lonely. Similarly there has been an upsurge in widely-reported and inspiring community-based initiatives prompted by Covid-19 that are making a genuine difference to people’s lives. Lastly, the current situation will provide a rich new source of data and evidence about the impacts and practical remedies in respect of loneliness.

Covid-19 may also help to re-energise the loneliness strategy. All such cross-cutting strategies struggle to maintain momentum. This particular strategy was kick-started as a personal initiative by the then-Prime Minister Theresa May, but since then we have had a change of Prime Minister, and three loneliness ministers in quick succession (Tracy Crouch MP, Mims Davies MP and Baroness Diana Barran). The small, highly-committed strategy team was transferred at an early stage from Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – a dynamic department but one of the smaller players in Whitehall.

The strategy faced some other challenges that are also common to cross-cutting initiatives, such as (i) a limited budget, (ii) a tendency for stakeholders to use the “loneliness” brand as a vehicle to lobby for largely unrelated measures which can distract from the core aims, (iii) the inherent difficulty in identifying concrete, targeted policy measures, (iv) a tendency to look for public sector-led solutions, and (v) a mismatch between the desire for a “national strategy” and the highly localised and individualised nature of the problem.

The onset of Covid-19, and the science-led policy response to it, has surfaced some other issues with the loneliness strategy. I believe the academic community – particularly in the fields of social and behavioural psychology – has an important role to play in providing suggestions and solutions. I would highlight the following:

  • Measures in the strategy emphasise the importance of individual face-to-face interaction, the use of “community spaces” to bring people together, and other measures aimed at raising the visibility of lonely people through place-based initiatives and the warmth of direct human contact. Covid-19 has, at least for now, brought much of this to a halt. Despite the heart-warming initiatives I mentioned earlier, lonely people may find their sense of belonging in their community and their circle of contacts reducing further.
  • There is a risk that isolated and lonely people have, as a result of Covid-19, become even more segregated from society than before, especially those living in poverty and with fewer resources to draw upon. There are fewer opportunities for direct contact with service providers such as social workers, job centre work coaches, or even the local Royal Mail delivery staff. Lonely people are becoming even less visible than before.
  • Past evidence has shown that young people report struggling with loneliness more than any other group. There is a risk that the problems faced by young people will be overshadowed by concerns about the elderly, care home residents and others who are more immediately vulnerable to the virus.

Conclusion

I would therefore urge academic experts in the psychology profession to support all tiers of government (central, devolved and local) who are trying to address these loneliness-related issues. This is not just about the short-term coping strategies needed for dealing with Covid-19, but about the longer-term impact on the aspiration to reduce loneliness significantly over a 10 year time horizon. There are opportunities, risks and issues where the academic community can help to mitigate the loneliness problem that could otherwise be worsened by Covid-19.
Graham Pendlebury CBE, MA (Cantab), FCIHT

Former Director, Local Transport, Department for Transport (2013-19)