Covid-19 and Loneliness

New Airedale Hospital – in Westminster Hall at 4:50 pm on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:50 pm, 15th June 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered covid-19 and loneliness.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am pleased to have secured this debate on covid-19 and loneliness during Loneliness Awareness Week. It is a chance for each of us not only to think about the issue, but to remember to take clear action to address loneliness as organisations and individuals. It comes a day after we heard that some covid-19 restrictions will continue, which may extend the period for some people.

It is appropriate that we have this debate today, the day before the fifth anniversary of the murder of our colleague, Jo Cox MP. I did not know Jo personally—I was not in the House at that time—but I know how people have spoken of her and the tremendous work that the Jo Cox Foundation is doing as part of her legacy, with the Great Get Together bringing so many people together for a chat in many different communities, making those connections and taking real action on loneliness. Of course, there is the important work carried out by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which was so influential in the development of the Government’s loneliness strategy.

Sadly, loneliness is common, and its negative effects are wide-ranging and complex. Even before the pandemic, between 8% and 18% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely often. An estimated 200,000 older people regularly went without having a conversation with a friend or relative for over a month. Although loneliness is often thought of as an older person’s issue, it can and does affect people of all ages. Young people aged between 18 and 24 consistently report the highest levels of loneliness, and the numbers have increased over the past year, as we have all been so much more isolated during the pandemic.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around 7.2% of adults—3.7 million people—reported feeling lonely often or always in the period between October 2020 and February 2021. According to research by the Red Cross, around two in five—39% of UK adults—say that they do not think their feelings of loneliness will go away after the coronavirus crisis is over, and a third say that they are concerned about being able to connect with people in person in the way they did prior to the pandemic. Finally, more than a third of people feel less connected to their local community than they did before covid-19. That is a sobering thought.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to visit Gateshead Carers, an organisation that supports unpaid carers, who spend so much of their time looking after others at home. While I was there, I met Irene and Trish. As it happens, they were meeting each other for the first time in person, having been linked up through a befriending scheme that has been operated by Gateshead Carers throughout the pandemic. Trish had been caring for her husband—first at home, and then when he was in residential care—for several years. She told me that before covid-19, she spent every day with him in the nursing home and lived at home by herself, but covid-19 meant that she could not spend that time with him, and she was spending much of her time at home alone. Both Trish and Irene told me how the befriending scheme had been a real positive for them by allowing them to reach out and make a connection with another person. It was clear to me that they were getting on like a house on fire.

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on so many people, regardless of whether they have contracted the virus. For many people, lockdowns, restrictions on activities, and not been able to see neighbours, friends and family have had a huge impact. For many, it has led to feelings of isolation and loneliness, as those everyday connections and contacts just have not been possible. It has been hard, and although virtual meetings have helped for some of us, they have not helped at all for those who are not so digitally savvy.

However, let us not imagine that loneliness has just appeared since covid-19. For too many people, loneliness existed before, and we must look at it in the longer term, but there is no doubt that covid-19 has made things worse. We need to address the covid-related issues that have highlighted the problem, but also take longer-term action. Loneliness will sadly not go away when covid-19 is no longer at the forefront of our minds or when restrictions are fully lifted.

Over the last year, the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness, with the support of the British Red Cross and the Co-op, has looked at loneliness and how we can best counteract it post-covid and in the longer-term. We held an inquiry over a number of sessions, taking evidence in writing and in person virtually from a wide range of organisations and individuals. We listened to their experiences and heard how they see the issue and how they are seeking to address it. In March, we published the report, “A connected recovery: Findings of the APPG on Loneliness Inquiry”. If the Minister has not had a chance to see it, I am happy to send her a copy.

Our inquiry contains a wealth of evidence and experiences about what we need to do to tackle loneliness and build a connected recovery. The recommendations set out action that can be taken at Government, local authority, neighbourhood and individual level. They are detailed and thoughtful. Today, I will set out the main recommendations.

First, tackling loneliness needs national leadership. The Government must commit to a connected recovery from the covid-19 pandemic,

“recognising the need for long term work to rebuild social connections following periods of isolation”.

That must include long-term funding to bring together the different strands of action needed to make that difference.

We should translate policy through local action. Our local authorities have been crucial in helping people and local communities during the pandemic. For many people hit by the pandemic, who have perhaps seen their income reduced, been forced to shield or self-isolate, or needed essential supplies, the support of staff in local hubs such as those set up by Gateshead Council in Winlaton, Chopwell and Birtley in my constituency has been essential. It has not only helped individuals, but made connections with voluntary organisations to link people up on more than just the practical level. I visited each of my hubs and found the staff, in many cases redeployed from leisure services or libraries, responding effectively but sensitively to people, many of whom called in distress. The staff went beyond the practical to make connections with others who could offer broader support. My thanks go to all of them—they have been vital in combatting loneliness, and that work needs to be built into the work of councils as we learn lessons.

The report states:

“The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should incentivise and support all areas to develop local loneliness action plans, which should encompass action on placemaking and delivering the activities needed to support social prescribing… Tackling loneliness should be built into all local authority COVID-19 recovery plans and…population health strategies.”

On investing in community infrastructure, the pandemic has shown us clearly the important part played by voluntary organisations, some long-established and some that sprang up in response to the need for practical support for those hit by the pandemic, such as local mutual aid groups. Those groups made a huge difference by shopping, collecting prescriptions and delivering meals. There is real benefit in having support at a local level. However, our third sector organisations, many well-established charities, need reliable funding if they are to continue that important work. The report states:

“The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should work across government…to create a sustainable fund to support” the work of those organisations on loneliness.

On closing the digital divide, the pandemic shone a light on the need for digital skills. We may be getting weary of endless meetings on Teams or Zoom, or some other platform, but for many they have been vital in keeping that connection with friends and families or in enabling them to join in with virtual activities. The charity Skills 4 Work, based in Birtley in my constituency, has had virtual afternoon teas for local people to keep the connection between the younger members and their local community. Before hon. Members suggest that virtual scones do not sound very attractive, let me assure them that the scones are very real. They are delivered in a covid-secure way by the project members to those taking part. I very much enjoyed mine.

We need to make our local communities and places loneliness-proof by providing places for people to meet. The APPG heard a good deal of evidence on that point recently. Loneliness affects people of all ages, not just older people. Young people reported some of the highest levels of loneliness even before the pandemic, yet they are struggling to access support. I urge the Government to consider the campaign by YoungMinds and the Samaritans to establish and fund mental health support clubs for young people across the country.

I want to briefly mention some of the people and organisations who have responded so magnificently in my constituency, such as Northumbria’s biggest coffee morning, organised by PC Andy Hyde for the local community in Ryton. Last year, it had to be a virtual coffee morning, but we were determined to carry on and make those connections. There are the volunteers at the Winlaton Centre, who provided hot meals for people who needed them; the Chopwell and Rowlands Gill Live at Home scheme, run by the Methodist Homes Association, which, among other things, held a socially-distanced VE Day celebration in which it called on people in a socially distanced way and took the celebration to them; the staff at Edberts House, in particular the community link officers who have been working to keep in touch with people and have an important part to play in social prescribing; and Age UK Gateshead, which has done so much to support people locally in so many ways. This year, it is making 36,000 phone calls per month. Prior to covid-19, it supported 3,148 individuals; three months later, it was 14,817. As Age UK Gateshead says, at the point of crisis, full need is identified. The chief executive says:

“Moving forward, do not implement services—talk to communities and individuals. Each street, village and town is different. Listen and enable people to help themselves. It’s at this point people talk to people and the real magic happens.”

I ask the Minister to meet me and representatives of the British Red Cross and the APPG to discuss how we can take this important work forward. I finish by remembering again that tomorrow is the five-year anniversary of the murder of our colleague, Jo Cox. I believe we must all carry on her work, bringing people together and working to end loneliness.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 5:02 pm, 15th June 2021

I congratulate Liz Twist on securing the debate and on the way she laid out her case. I pay tribute to her for the work that she does with the Samaritans. I entirely echo her remarks about our late colleague, Jo Cox.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, people with a long-term disability, widowed homeowners, unmarried middle-agers and young renters were most likely to feel lonely, according to the Office for National Statistics, but now the feeling of loneliness has increased in many more of us, as we were told to stay inside and could not see family and friends. If colleagues knew some of my family and friends, they would understand why for me personally that was a small relief, but I know that the majority of people were very sorry not to see family and friends.

With the Prime Minister’s announcement last evening delaying the ending of the coronavirus restrictions, many people who are lonely will still not be receiving the assistance they need. The hospitality industry has not been able to fully reopen, large-scale events are not what they once were and there is still a limit on the number of people someone can see inside and outside. The extension of the restrictions will inevitably result in some people remaining on their own, because they are vulnerable or cannot access the help they require to socialise in their community once again.

Loneliness is a very complex experience. We see colleagues who seem to have lots of friends, but who can be very lonely. If we are all honest with ourselves, the number of true friends that we have can be counted on our hands. I have given up, over the years, on knowing the number of Members of Parliament who are really lonely. I would send a message to our Whips saying, “You do need to look after your flock.” We never know how our colleagues are suffering. Although it is not always accepted, we are members of the human race, so the hon. Member for Blaydon has done the House a great service by drawing the whole issue to our attention.

Despite the delay in ending the restrictions, I am pleased that the Prime Minister announced an end to the 30-person limit on weddings. I have a personal vested interest in that: two of my daughters are getting married this year, so they were cheering about the whole thing, although my bank manager was not necessarily cheering. The relaxations on wakes and visits outside care homes are also to be welcomed. Those announcements are a step in the right direction towards combatting loneliness. I encourage the Government, with our excellent Minister present, to further ease lockdown rules and allow friends and family to meet as soon as it is safe to do so.

It was Carers Week last week, and that was an opportunity to thank all the carers for the wonderful work that they have selflessly done throughout the pandemic to look after the elderly, the sick, the disabled and the lonely. My area, Southend West, has the largest number of centenarians in the country. Not many of their contemporaries are alive, obviously, so we need to look out for elderly people in particular. Many people in nursing homes in my area and in our local hospital experience severe loneliness, as their friends and families are either unable to visit them or uneasy about doing so because of the health risks. There are many carers in Southend and they deserve recognition. I was delighted with the awards in the birthday honours list for their invaluable work throughout the pandemic in our many nursing homes and at Southend Hospital.

Charities have, similarly, been a lifeline to many individuals who are lonely, and I am pleased that we have so many of them locally in Southend. An example is the St Vincent de Paul Society, which visits vulnerable people and offers them practical support and friendship. Trust Links supports those with mental health and wellbeing issues through gardening and community involvement, and the Southend West scouts bring young people together.

More must be done, however, to raise awareness of the impact of loneliness and to encourage people to speak up about it. There is a stigma about being lonely. Some people think, “Well I am such a horrible person and that is why I haven’t got any friends,” but that is not the case. There is nothing as sad as going to a funeral when there is nobody there at all. It is absolutely heartbreaking. There is a stigma about being lonely and it needs to be eradicated, because it is hindering people in reaching out for help. Schools and local community groups should work closely with charities and organisations that help reduce loneliness, because—as has already been said—even if someone is surrounded by people every day at school or here, it is very possible to feel excluded. Loneliness does not just affect older people. With young people, parents get anxious when it appears that their children have no friends for whatever reason.

The Wesley Methodist church holds monthly local services for people with dementia, and socialising and art activities take place after the service. That is a great initiative for people with dementia to be active in the community. St Helen’s church, my local church, also holds youth clubs and friendship clubs that meet regularly to encourage community engagement. I hope that those events will resume soon.

Friends and Places Together helps young people with friendship groups, activities and trips in England. Younger people can feel lonely too. David Stanley set up the Music Man Project, which played at the London Palladium and went on to the Royal Albert Hall, and would be going to Broadway were it not for the pandemic. It is absolutely inspirational. David Stanley has so helped and encouraged people with learning disabilities through the power of music, and I hope that the Music Man Project will spread throughout the country to every single constituency.

Friday is the first anniversary of the death of Dame Vera Lynn. We are holding a live event at the top of the white cliffs of Dover. There will be a few surprises for older people, and I hope that those who support older people can tune in. I envisage that on Friday we will all be singing “Land of Hope and Glory”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

There has been a considerable rise in the number of people with pets during the pandemic to tackle loneliness. I am animal mad. By and large, animals are grateful for everything that is done for them. Owning an animal is a big responsibility though, and pets are for life, not just until someone gets bored with them. There is no excuse for animal neglect, and I encourage anyone who gets a pet to help with their loneliness to first be sure that they know what is involved in looking after one. There are services that can help people.

I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am very pleased the Government have introduced support bubbles and the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” online service for those who feel left out to give them advice and support. We must, however, continue the support programmes and further reduce the stigma of loneliness as the coronavirus restrictions ease, because many people feeling lonely might be anxious about once again engaging with their community and the general public.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:10 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, for the second time today. Who am I to speak in this debate after two terrific speeches from the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Southend West (Sir David Amess)? I have been here for four years and a couple of days, and it strikes me that one of the best things that Westminster does is the Westminster Hall debate, which is more like a tutorial. What I have heard in the first two contributions is thought provoking and has altered what I am going to say.

Lockdown was not terribly difficult for me and my wife because we had each other, and my son and his wife, just in the nick of time before the first lockdown, came north with their two little girls, which was a pleasure. However, I want to talk about a constituent of mine called Sally Cartwright. Sally is a widow in her 80s. She has been successful in life. She ran a business with her husband and had a successful small business. She became chairman of the local enterprise company—I think the first female chairman of a local enterprise company in Scotland. She was awarded the MBE. Halfway through the first lockdown, I called her about something or other. I asked for advice and she said, “Jamie, I’m so damned lonely. I am not in a bubble. I can’t go out. I am not daft. I am not very good with mobility, but I am a thinking lady, and it’s really getting me down.” That shook me because this lady is a pillar of society and one would not expect that to come from her.

I then took to ringing Sally on a regular basis to say, “How’s it going?”. In fact, I spoke to her today to get permission to use her name in this debate. My excellent constituency officer manager, Heather Macmillan, said, “You ought to get in the habit of making perhaps 10 calls a day, and I will suggest people you can call.” The reason I am telling Members this is because I was relatively comfortable in my own home in lockdown and I had not seen it for what it really was, and it shook me to the core. So what is the answer?

I am speaking only briefly in this debate and I am speaking only because of Sally. I thought, “Damn it, I will take part in this debate.” I do not normally go on about things in the north of Scotland, as Members know. However, yesterday—this takes me back to the hon. Member for Southend West—hot and bothered I walked from this place to my flat. It had been a really hot day and I longed to get in, pull myself a glass of lager and put my feet up. I heard music as I walked towards St John’s, Smith Square, and it got louder and louder as I walked past that beautiful church heading towards Pimlico. I realised the doors of the church were open because of the heat, and the orchestra was in full practice. I thought, “What are they playing? Is it Prokofiev? What is it? I don’t know.” At that moment, it hit me like a bolt of lightning, exactly as the hon. Gentleman said: music touches the human psyche more than we all realise.

We all have different tastes, but music is a sort of strange common language that works, and I think that it is possibly part of the solution—although there are no solutions to this—but it could be part of the way we can approach it. The next time we have to go through this awful process again, and I fear that we will because viruses mutate and there will be new viruses—although, God, I wish there weren’t—I think more music will be part of the solution.

The second thing is that every time I spoke to Sally, she told me that one of her grandchildren had zoomed in and, for all the difficulties of this way of talking to each other through a small screen, the grandchild saying, “Hello, Granny. How are you?”, really gave a little lift to her day. Perhaps we could, in each of our communities, develop the idea of having teams of people, including young people, who can talk to one another. Sally said to me, “I’m not so mobile, but I’ve got a brain on my shoulders,” and so she has. She is, as we say in Scotland, as sharp as a tack. If I put a foot wrong in politics, she is on to me just like that. I was saying, “Sally, if we have to go through this again, how would it be if you did some telephoning or whatever and we just opened this up?”

I do not know the solution, but I have made two suggestions to the Minister. I have enormous respect for the Minister—a lady of compassion. I suspect that we are sowing our seeds on fertile ground, in terms of what the Government might come forward with.

Photo of Darren Henry Darren Henry Conservative, Broxtowe 5:15 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. First, I thank Liz Twist for calling this debate. At some point in all our lives, we will feel lonely. That may be for an endless number of reasons, but it is worth noting that loneliness is not the same as being alone. We can be surrounded by friends and loved ones and still feel fundamentally lonely.

The covid-19 pandemic has had an undeniable impact on loneliness. A report by the British Red Cross found that almost 40% of UK adults are more concerned about their loneliness now than they were a year ago. A similar number had gone more than a fortnight without having a meaningful conversation. Around 39% of UK adults say that they do not think that their feelings of loneliness will go away after the coronavirus crisis is over, and one third say that they are concerned about being able to connect with people in person in the way they did prior to the pandemic.

Loneliness has long been thought of as an issue that is most likely to affect older people, and indeed older people are hugely affected. Before the pandemic, an estimated 200,000 older people regularly went more than a month without having a conversation with a friend or relative. However, as my hon. Friend Sir David Amess said, loneliness can and does affect people of all ages. Young people aged between 18 and 24 years old consistently report higher levels of loneliness than any other age group, and more than 11% of children are estimated to feel lonely often.

During lockdown, our young people were isolated from their friends at school and university. Their prospects of starting new careers were dashed as a result of many industries limiting staff numbers. In particular, hospitality, which as an industry is the largest employer of young people, was closed throughout lockdown. All the data show an alarming trend such that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the mental health of young people.

I pledge my full support for a connected recovery. When emerging from this pandemic, we must ensure that nobody is excluded from our recovery. The only way in which we will all recover is by connecting, reaching out, and ensuring that no one is left behind.

In April 2020, at the start of the national lockdown, the Government launched a comprehensive plan to try to tackle loneliness. That included categorising loneliness as a priority for the £750-million charity funding package; continuing the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign; and bringing together the new Tackling Loneliness Network, made up of private, public and charity sector organisations that want to make a difference. Following this, the recommendation from the Red Cross that tackling loneliness should be built into all local authority covid-19 recovery plans and integrated care system population health strategies, would ensure that tackling loneliness was at the heart of the recovery.

I thank the Government for recognising the scale of the issue of loneliness and laying out plans to tackle it. I specifically commend them on attempting to tackle, through the “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign, the taboo around discussion of loneliness. My belief is that this problem will not begin to be tackled until anyone can, without fear of judgment, reach out and say, “I feel lonely.”

Covid-19 has also demonstrated how vital our digital infrastructure is. When families and friends could not be together in person, they could see one another online and still connect online. That is why I am so glad that the Government have come together with the national lottery for the local connections fund. The funding will help to bring people together in safe and secure ways, recovering the costs of technology and equipment that will help people to feel more connected in their communities. It is my hope that the funding will begin to bridge the digital divide by building skills and confidence online.

I recently held a number of meetings with WaveLength, a charity that uses technology to help those suffering from loneliness. I was delighted when, just this week, WaveLength was able to support multiple organisations in my constituency of Broxtowe.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon for calling this debate during Loneliness Awareness Week. I end by thanking all the charities and organisations that are working tirelessly to help tackle loneliness—Mind, Age UK, Samaritans, Re-engage, Calm and the British Red Cross. All those organisations help those dealing with loneliness. I encourage anyone listening today who is struggling to reach out to one of those groups. It is more important than ever that we connect with each other while emerging from this pandemic and ensure that we have a connected recovery, so that the message from the Government, coming out of this pandemic, is that you are not alone.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

We now go to Jim Shannon, for the second time this afternoon.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:21 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship all day, Sir Edward. It does not bother me, and I do not think it will bother other Members here either. We are very pleased to be here. Thank you for that and for calling me.

First, I especially thank Liz Twist for bringing this debate today. When I saw the topic in the Westminster Hall diary, I was keen to come down, first, to support her, but also to tell the public a story, as Jamie Stone also did about one of his friends.

The contributions from right hon. and hon. Members have been incredible. I doubt whether any family across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have not had some personal story to tell, as the hon. Gentleman referred to. I have been incredibly impressed by the speeches. Sir David Amess referred to the “city to be”. I refer to it as a “city already”. I think we all know it as that; we are just waiting for it to be said officially—that is all.

The hon. Gentleman referred to how some people can be lonely in a crowded room. That is true. I know people who are like that. I know people who were the life and joy of a party and when the party was over, they were the loneliest people in the world. We cannot always tell a book by its cover or a person by the persona we see. That story resonates with me when I think about the people I have known over the years who fit into that specific category.

I have listened to so many difficult stories during this covid pandemic. I have seen at first hand the devastating effect that social distancing has had on the most vulnerable people. I lost my mother-in-law, Jemima, to covid in October last year. Her husband, Robert, my father-in-law, is a very private man and obviously found it devastating, personally, as did the rest of the family. But he had to grieve in isolation, because he was self-isolating when Jemima went into the hospital on the Monday and she then died on the Friday. My sister-in-law, my wife’s sister, was also in the intensive care unit with covid, so we could not even have the funeral until everyone was out of covid-19 isolation. For my boys to have had to contact Robert through a window was not the way it should have been. To say that he is a changed man vastly under-states what has happened.

Who will forget Her Majesty when Prince Philip passed away? Who did not resonate with Her Majesty as she sat in solitude, removed from those who loved her at the funeral service of her husband of 73 years? That was a dreadful scene, but one replicated in too many churches and too many funeral parlours throughout the land.

I think there is some encouragement; it is always good to have encouragement. The book by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge, “Hold Still”, struck and stirred a chord in so many of us, as we understand that our pain is shared by so many.

During the lockdowns, my wife and I became grandparents—twice. However, we have not seen one of those grandchildren. Wee Max was born last October; Freya’s birthday will be Monday coming, but we will have a birthday party on 20 June. That will be an occasion when all 13 of us can come together. I should say, by the way, that the hon. Member for Southend West’s time as a grandparent is coming. I was saying one day to my wife, “We started as two, with three sons. Three sons got three wives—and now we have five grandchildren.” That is how the two became 13. Maybe the hon. Gentleman will end up with as many as that—I do not know. It is wonderful that we can come together after 15 months and have some joy. We understand that there are so many other people who have lived through this situation, as well.

The rules were in place for a reason—they were, and they are. They saved lives. We have adhered to the rules the whole way through because, first of all, we have to set an example, but also because I believe is right to do so. If the rules are set, let us adhere to them.

Our mental health as a nation is low—indeed, a lot lower than it ever has been in most of our memories. I live on a farm, so I am very fortunate. I go for a walk every night that I am home and I must say that I found comfort at home—not just with my wife, but because whenever I went for a walk I took my dog. The good thing about a dog is that it will always wag its tail. It will always be a friend, unlike a cat, which makes up its mind about whether it will be someone’s friend or not. That is how cats are. The point I am making here is this: if I had not had that opportunity to go for a walk, I think it would have been a very difficult time for me.

I commend all the charities, in particular the Red Cross in Northern Ireland, which conducted a poll that found that almost half the people in Northern Ireland—some 47%—said it was hard to talk about their problems when so many people are having a difficult time due to covid-19. Worryingly, more than two in five—some 41%—said that they would not be confident about knowing where to go for mental health or emotional support if they needed it. We need to consider how we can help those people and support them. That is what the hon. Member for Blaydon and others have said.

In Northern Ireland, the Red Cross is calling for the Northern Ireland Assembly to tackle loneliness and social isolation, advocating early action in the covid-19 recovery plans and a mental health strategy, while committing to develop and implement a cross-departmental Northern Ireland loneliness strategy. I think that is really what we need. Mental health issues have become so strong and so disjointed that we really need to have a loneliness strategy in place. I believe this approach must be funded UK-wide, to rebuild not simply our economy but, just as importantly, our people and our communities.

I also believe that we need to encourage the safe meeting of mother and toddler groups; how important that is, to get normality and for mothers to interact with mothers, and children with children. Children will always play together, because that is what children do, but mothers also need verbal communication and physical contact. Our nature is not to be on our own. I suppose that is the reason why we are all married; I presume that we are all married, or are about to be, or whatever the case may be. We need company; it is very important.

There are also the afternoon tea dances that we held in our neck of the woods, in Strangford in the Orange Halls, or the face-to-face parent-teacher meetings. We used to look almost with fear at the parent-teacher meetings, but now people would just love to have one; it would be great just to have that interaction.

We need to rebuild the notion that we are not alone and that together we are stronger. I join all my colleagues who have already spoken and those who will speak after me in asking the Government to do more to acknowledge the problem and to begin to allow the solution: a renewed sense of family, and of a community standing together, with a real connection, to help as and when needed. That is what we all do every day as elected Members of Parliament and as elected representatives. We do it because our people have chosen us. They often do that because it is our character and personality to help others.

I am very pleased to see the Minister in her place; I always genuinely look forward to her contributions. I know that she has empathy with all of us in the stories that we tell because she has been through those stories as well. I am also looking forward to hearing the shadow Minister, Rachael Maskell. I did not know that she was back until today and I have seen her sitting there. It is a pleasure to see her in place because I have not seen her physically for a while—it must be six or seven months, I am sure. I very much look forward to listening to her. I am sorry, I have meandered on for a while, but I just wanted to make those comments.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 5:30 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, even if it is only once today. Congratulations also to Liz Twist on securing this important debate during Loneliness Awareness Week and for her tribute to Jo Cox. The Marmalade Trust runs the campaign, and the theme this year is acceptance. Its purpose is to encourage people to talk about loneliness in an attempt to remove the stigma and shame around it.

The coronavirus pandemic has made me feel very lonely at times, in spite of a busy life and a supportive family and colleagues. I do not intend to dwell on my own loneliness; I just want to say that this is something I really understand. The groups most at risk of loneliness have already been alluded to, but I can add to them and say they also include members of the armed forces, carers, people from ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, people from LGBT+ groups and homeless people.

Loneliness can and does affect folk right across society and that has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. Living through an extended period of not spending time with our friends and loved ones has been painful for everybody, but extremely damaging for some. The SNP Scottish Government are fully committed to tackling social isolation and loneliness across Scotland and are providing investment to promote equality and digital inclusion. The events of this year have reaffirmed the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling social isolation and loneliness as a serious public health issue. That is why part of the Scottish Government’s winter plan for social protection had a specific focus on addressing that.

In addition to funding communities and digital inclusion, the Scottish Government have also funded partners, including £100,000 for befriending networks. Befriending organisations, such as Befriend Motherwell, BeFriend in Bellshill based in Orbiston, and Getting Better Together in Wishaw and Shotts, all cover my constituency. Those and other organisations switched to telephone befriending services, which, although not the same, are helping many folk throughout the pandemic. I also salute all the organisations involved in my poverty action network that have worked so hard during lockdown, combatting loneliness.

The SNP Scottish Government have invested £4.3 million to tackle social isolation and loneliness through digital inclusion via the Connecting Scotland programme, which has helped 5,000 older and disabled people get online and so tackle isolation and digital exclusion. It also supported families to maintain contact with a loved one in prison custody through digital services and internet access, and it will have invested £5 million to increase the work organisations already do, fund new ones and help provide safe places online and in person for people to connect. We should expect that level of commitment from the UK Government too.

The SNP remains committed to supporting the mental health, wellbeing and equality of our communities. Our manifesto says that the SNP is committed to increasing direct investment in mental health services by at least 25% and ensuring that by the end of the Parliament, 10% of the frontline NHS budget will be invested in mental health services, with 1% of NHS frontline spending being invested in child and adolescent mental health services.

A sense of community, and the resilience that we all draw from it, has helped Scotland get through this pandemic. In the first 100 days of the new SNP Government, they will develop their new five-year social isolation and loneliness plan, which is backed by £10 million over five years and is focused on reconnecting people as we come out of the pandemic and tackle loneliness head on. They will also establish a steering group, inviting cross-party representation in order to progress the delivery of a Scottish minimum income guarantee. People are more isolated if they do not have the funds to make social contacts, travel short distances and view the world outwith their four walls.

Loneliness is a blight on people’s lives and has impacts on their mental health. All Governments should and must work with community partners to end the scourge of loneliness. Funding spent now will decrease the cost to ongoing health services in the future. Governments across the four nations have a duty to improve people’s lives by allowing them to feel less lonely and anxious. Again, following what Darren Henry said, we should thank all the organisations across the UK that have done so much to alleviate people’s loneliness in all sorts of circumstances. As hon. Members have already said, we do not know how someone feels when we look at them, but it should be incumbent on us all to make sure that we always have a friendly word and an understanding of how other people live their lives.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:36 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to speak with you in the Chair, Sir Edward, in what has been an outstanding debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, not least my hon. Friend Liz Twist, who not only set out the scale of loneliness, but has served well on the APPG on loneliness. Of course, she focused all our minds on tomorrow, the fifth anniversary of the passing of Jo Cox.

Few people have never felt the aching pain of loneliness. Thankfully, it is fleeting for most—those moments pass—but not for all. Once trapped in the cycle of loneliness, it can be difficult to escape. Lost connections happen at transition points in life, such as a move or a new baby, when old friends are left behind or new demands fill people’s days. For some, however, those days turn to weeks, months and years. Disabled people are trapped behind a multitude of barriers, refugees are in a strange land, single people are home alone, and the elderly are often confined to their own homes and, for many with dementia, their own worlds. Their carers, too, can fall into loneliness, as demands replace time with friends. For others, loneliness has stemmed from the loss of a job or a loved one.

The past year has been particularly brutal. Some 41% of adults say that they feel lonelier than they did before the first lockdown. Being bereaved in lockdown has been particularly harsh—not being with loved ones as they died, and not being able to grieve properly. It hurts. The digital divide in an increasingly digitalised society can make isolation all the more challenging. Others just find it hard to make secure friendships, and it is okay to say so. If someone quietly longs for a buddy—someone to share things with, or to journey parts of their life together—help with making connections must be available. The call for connected recovery is a recognition that things do not have to be that way; they can change and bring meaning, friendship, love and purpose back into our relationships.

Loneliness is the greatest public health challenge of our age. Each day, millions of people would identify with such a diagnosis, but instead of the hope of a cure, the deafening chill of emptiness pursues them. For some people, it never departs. Although the Government’s loneliness strategy is a packed agenda on combating loneliness that is high on aspiration and complex in ambition, we have to be honest: it was incapable of responding to covid-19. The reality is that relationships are built from within communities, and they need the tools and means to respond.

As with all public health emergencies, we need to map those who are lonely. Our directors of public health should lead the local partnership to reach different environments, ages and intersectional challenges with a strategy to reach their communities. Government have to trust directors of public health to formulate their public health frameworks and provide them with the tools and the means to deliver. So, the first issue is trust in a local public health approach.

Secondly, there is funding. Let us not pretend that this can be done on the cheap, because not delivering is costly. A recent survey commissioned by the Government concluded that severe loneliness cost just short of £10,000 a person each year. Let me scale that up. Researchers calculated that it cost £32 billion a year. Public health budgets have been slashed, the communities sector has been starved and charities are struggling more and more each day that restrictions are extended, yet Government have completely failed to recognise that they need support. Just £5 million was given to addressing loneliness at the very start of the pandemic, over a year ago. Charities have been largely forgotten. The very organisations that can address loneliness are now facing further restraints from cash-strapped local authorities.

Will the Minister take a strong message back to the Minister for Loneliness? Until this Government get a grip on the funding crisis in the sector, they have no chance of supporting people who experience loneliness as the infrastructure is simply unsustainable without funding. It must be addressed now and in the comprehensive spending review.

Thirdly, success must be measured and shared. Such a project must be evaluated and a long-term commitment to meet need achieved.

Finally, the Marmalade Trust, the British Red Cross, Age UK and the Jo Cox Foundation are all at the forefront of finding ways to break the stigma of loneliness. If people say they are lonely, it is okay. If they are lonely, it is okay. However, it is not okay that the Government are not providing the tools and the resources to the very people who can make those connections.

May Loneliness Awareness Week empower all to recognise loneliness, to reach out to those who are lonely and to rekindle the hope that as a society we can build strong connections, so that no one need be lonely.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Minister of State 5:42 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am delighted to be able to discuss such an important topic. It has been a high-quality debate. Without exception, every single contribution has been first class and I thank everybody who has taken part. There were some heartfelt and touching contributions.

I particularly thank Liz Twist for calling for such an important debate. I know that she is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on loneliness and she brings a great deal of knowledge and experience, as well as passion and care, to the debate. I am grateful to her and I join her in paying tribute to our former colleague, Jo Cox, who we all miss terribly.

I am grateful to the APPG for its review of loneliness during covid-19 and the recommendations for the Government’s role in supporting a connected recovery from the pandemic. I am sure that my brilliant colleague, the Minister for Loneliness, will be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the APPG.

The covid-19 pandemic has associated social distancing measures with loneliness. We know that, but the importance of social connection has been highlighted for us all during this. As the Office for National Statistics indicated, levels of chronic loneliness among adults in England has increased between spring 2020 and February 2021 from 5% to 7%.

As we start to be able to see each other in person more, we know that there will be a large number of people who felt lonely and isolated long before the pandemic started, and will continue to feel that way after the restrictions lift. As my hon. Friend Sir David Amess said, unpaid carers, who give so much of themselves with their love and their care for those they love, often feel the impact of loneliness and deserve our attention.

There will also be those who have lost confidence as a result of the impact of covid, who may struggle to reconnect or feel left behind as a restrictions ease. That is at the top of the Government’s agenda. As the APPG report sets out, the Government’s response to covid-19 has recognised the importance of social interaction and connection. That work built on our existing commitments, set out in our strategy of 2018 and reiterated in two annual loneliness reports since. We have provided funding to organisations that provide vital support to a wide range of people at risk of loneliness.

Contrary to what Rachael Maskell says, since the beginning of the pandemic we have invested more than £34 million in such organisations in England alone and helped people who experience loneliness through a £750 million charity funding package. We also set up a £4 million local connections fund in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund. Through the first round of the local connections fund, we have already awarded more than 840 microgrants to charities and community groups that help people to connect via the things that they enjoy.

The “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign, which a couple of Members spoke about, aims to raise awareness of loneliness and remind people that it is okay to ask for help when feeling lonely. Several colleagues beautifully set out how loneliness hides in plain sight. Anybody can feel lonely at any time; it can affect anybody at any age. During the pandemic, we have used the campaign to share advice on simple steps we can all take to support ourselves and others.

In response to covid-19, we also set up the Tackling Loneliness Network of more than 80 organisations from across the private, public and charity sectors to take action on loneliness. We published an action plan in May setting out a series of actions that they are taking. In this Loneliness Awareness Week, they have launched the Connection Coalition’s loneliness chatbot service on WhatsApp.

Local people understand what is needed in their communities, and we agree with the APPG that local and grassroots action is vital in tackling this issue. That is why we want to build a shared understanding of communities’ needs and assets and focus on supporting local areas to share and learn what works locally.

I really welcome the APPG’s emphasis on digital inclusion. As Minister of State for Digital and Culture, I know that the ability to connect digitally during the lockdown has been a lifeline, but too many people faced a barrier to connecting because they lack the mobile technology, the internet or the skills and confidence to do it. That is an issue that the Government are dedicated to addressing. Our £2.5 million digital lifeline fund is providing tablets, data and free digital support to more than 5,500 people with learning disabilities, allowing them to connect with friends and support.

As I mentioned, this Loneliness Awareness Week is a really important opportunity to highlight some of the amazing work that is happening with grassroots organisations around our nations, as a number of Members have already. We have seen extraordinary examples over the past year of community spirit and of charity groups and organisations that have really stepped up and adapted to this new world to ensure that local people do not feel isolated.

Through our “Let’s Talk Loneliness” campaign we will this week partner with a wide range of organisations to encourage everyone across society to continue to reach out to support people who may be feeling lonely, even as restrictions ease. Every single one of us can make a difference, and the Government are really determined to do our bit as well. I thank everybody for their great contributions to the debate.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:48 pm, 15th June 2021

I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It has been a useful debate in making sure that, during Loneliness Awareness Week, we do not forget this issue and we pay attention to it. It is interesting to hear the different experiences of colleagues in their constituencies.

I conclude by reiterating that we would very much like to work with the Government, and I hope that it will be possible to arrange the meeting we talked about so that we can progress things further. We need not only to talk about loneliness in debates like this, but to really make a difference, which is what so many organisations are doing on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered covid-19 and loneliness.

Sitting adjourned.