Prior to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 16% of the Welsh population identified as lonely, and it is known that loneliness and social isolation present significant challenges to public health and well-being. Several Public Service Boards have identified reducing them as a priority for their areas and the Welsh Government released its own Loneliness Strategy in February, just before the current lockdown.
Social distancing measures introduced to reduce the transmission of the Coronavirus have made tackling the problem both more urgent and more difficult. They simultaneously increase the risk of loneliness and social isolation and rule out most of our tried and tested approaches to tackling them. To make matters worse, the evidence suggests that those most at risk of loneliness and social isolation during the lockdown, particularly older people living alone, are least well equipped to access remote and technology-enabled ways to tackle them. They probably also face the longest period in isolation, possibly stretching into next year.
Loneliness and social isolation are distinct concepts. Loneliness refers to a person’s feelings about the quality of their relationships. Social isolation measures objectively the number of relationships a person has. Our series of blogs last year discussed the evidence of loneliness in Wales and possible ways to tackle it for older and younger people, those materially deprived and for urban and rural communities.
It is clear from that work that most existing interventions rely on and encourage face-to-face contact. Whilst there is a lack of robust evidence about the effectiveness of these initiatives, person-centred and tailor-made approaches are considered the most effective. These include, spending time with animals, teaching people how to use technology, gardening, physical activity, reminiscence therapy, befriending and accessing services.
Therefore, most current approaches to supporting better connected communities focus on providing mechanisms to link people up with these initiatives, groups and services. Examples in Wales include link worker roles that enable people to access community provision, examples include ACE – Action in Caerau and Ely, Swansea’s Local Area Coordinators, and the Made in North Wales approach to social prescribing.
Social distancing means that these approaches are no longer viable, so we need to come up with effective interventions that do not depend on direct social contacts. Digitally enabled solutions provide the most obvious solution. Social media platforms in particular can connect people with each other and enable public services to identify and meet communities’ and individuals’ needs. Examples include apps and initiatives such as The Breathe Life Campaign, Bookey, and Speaking Exchange that support people to become involved in a group with a shared interest and can reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
However, they are not the whole answer. We know that it is difficult to convey emotions and social cues online, so it is not a substitute for direct contact. Digitally enabled solutions also exclude the fifth of the population in Wales who lack basic digital skills and the 13% of households which have no internet access.
Our aim is to help initiate a dialogue about the value of non-face-to-face interventions to reduce loneliness to enhance understanding what works for different groups. The current social distancing measures may be in place for some time, particularly for ‘shielded’ and vulnerable groups, and the implications of Coronavirus for public service capacity, public health provision and our personal perceptions of our vulnerability to health risks are also likely to be lasting. But even in ‘normal’ times there are a range of groups within our communities who feel socially distanced including carers, new mothers, those with physical mobility restrictions and those with mental ill-health. And there may be things that we can learn from how technology has been used to support these groups, which have more general application in the current circumstances.
The Wales Centre for Public Policy discusses this evidence in our report Loneliness in the Lockdown, which identifies key issues for public services that are seeking technology-enabled solutions to tackle loneliness and social isolation in lockdown.