Tackling loneliness will be a bellwether for Covid-19 recovery

25 Mar 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Mar 2021

Red Cross NI Director Sharon Sinclair
Red Cross NI Director Sharon Sinclair

New research from the Red Cross lays bare how, for many people, coronavirus has led to loneliness. The root causes cut across every aspect of the pandemic.


The pandemic has led to an increase of loneliness in Northern Ireland – yet many people either don’t know where to seek help, or don’t feel that they should.

Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Some people enjoy living alone, for instance. Instead, loneliness is the gap between someone’s desired level of social contact and their actual level of social contact. It is the subjective quality of a person’s relationships, and it has an immense effect on wellbeing.

Recent research from Red Cross NI found that most people who have seen an increase in loneliness fall into one of two groups. The Longest Year: Life under local restrictions, published last month, found that Covid-19, and all the surrounding efforts to contain the deadly virus, has left many people newly vulnerable – while others are now “on the brink” because of previous challenges being exacerbated.

Newly vulnerable people include those who may not have needed to ask for support in the past. They are often unsure where to seek assistance for loneliness or poor mental health, and many suffer from stigma around asking for help.

The Red Cross says those who are on the brink were just about coping before the pandemic and now face agonising choices between paying their bills, buying enough food or clothing their children.

Almost everyone feels lonely from time to time. That is, broadly, part of life. In contrast, the sense of feeling lonely often or always is a major health and wellbeing problem. The effects are similar to those of obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness can increase the risk of early death by as much as 30%.

That the pandemic has left some people feeling lonely more often is in some ways unsurprising. The amount of social contact people can have has plummeted. There are also simply fewer places to go if you want to leave the house.

However, it should also be noted that a key risk factors for loneliness is going through a life transition. Transitions can include bereavement, separation, loss of employment or even things like moving house. The pandemic has caused major upheaval – or transition – in most people’s lives.

Findings – and context

Red Cross NI found that people who live alone, those who are clinically vulnerable, and those who care for others are the most likely to report feelings of depression, loneliness and isolation.

New polling revealed:

  • Almost half of people in NI (47%) said it is tough to talk about their own problems when so many others are struggling due to Covid-19
  • Over two in five (41%) said they would not be confident about where to turn for mental health or emotional support

In a briefing paper aimed at local politicians, and based on the new reports findings, the Red Cross says: “Both the qualitative and quantitative strands of this research suggest the biggest impact of living under local restrictions is on people’s mental health. This was for a combination of reasons, including boredom, frustration, worries about the virus and financial concerns, but the most common triggers were isolation and feelings of loneliness.”

Sharon Sinclair, the Director of Red Cross NI, told Scope the consequences of the pandemic has some common ground with other emergencies like flooding or fire, in that people who were near to the edge have suddenly found themselves vulnerable or in crisis, including those who never imagined they would need support for their own mental health or wellbeing.

“Some people interpret the act of asking for help in such a way that it makes them feel more vulnerable. That’s also a common thread in other types of emergencies.

“That is a disincentive to ask for help for people who are lonely or isolated. They are doing that classically Northern Irish thing of saying they should be grateful for what they have. It’s almost as if people feel they are not entitled to ask for support.”

Ms Sinclair said plenty of work has been done in recent years to reduce stigma for physical and mental health challenges, but that loneliness is perceived differently.

“I have had discussions with people worried about lonely people see it as a failure of their ability to maintain social connections.

“There are multiple reasons for being lonely or socially isolated, it’s a natural thing to experience as part of our lives but we need to be aware because like other mental or emotional health issues it can become chronic. When that happens, it becomes more and more difficult to re-establish social connections. If people move into the state of chronic loneliness, then they really need one-to-one support to rebuild their confidence.”

Further issues

Other findings include from The Longest Year include:

  • More than three in four people (76 per cent) say they find it easier to limit how much they leave their home than to keep up with changes to coronavirus restrictions and 74% say they are confident that they can cope with changes to their life that may be caused by the pandemic, and that they will be able to recover afterwards. Those numbers are quite high – but so are the inverses, with around a quarter of people unable to say they find it easy to stay at home, and a similar number not able to say they are confident of post-pandemic recovery.
  • Covid-19 has driven some people into financial difficulty and, unsurprisingly, the impacts on people who do struggle to make ends meet are significant.

Ms Sinclair said that too many people lack strong support networks “for a wide variety of reasons” and that this represented a social vulnerability that had a wedge driven through it by the pandemic.

“There is a new set of vulnerabilities from Covid that are interlaced with social isolation and its consequences. That has led to newly-vulnerable people. This has led to some people falling into financial security that perhaps they would not have in the past.

“It includes people working in retail, hospitality and similar sectors. It includes young people, like the student population who depend on part-time jobs in precisely those kinds of sector to supplement their income or to be their main source.”

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK without its own, dedicated loneliness strategy. This has long been a major policy ask from Red Cross. It is now perhaps more important than ever.

The organisation has said in the past that an NI loneliness strategy should include some core principles such as public awareness of the nature and extent of this issue, the promotion (and, indeed, creation) of opportunities for people to connect (including a regional-mapping exercise to audit what services already exist, and where), support and development relevant infrastructure, have specific measures for children and young people, and for it all to be funded sustainably.

Making up for lost time

However, as well as establishing a loneliness strategy to tackle the issue in general, the Executive should interweave that will a proper programme to deal with the loneliness consequences of Covid-19.

The Red Cross wants Stormont to carry out a broad range of measures to tackle loneliness now and in the future. The organisation is calling on the Executive to do several things, including:

  • Tackle the negative impacts of loneliness and social isolation by integrating early action into COVID-19recovery plans and the Northern Ireland Mental Health Strategy. This should include investing in targeted approaches, including one-to-one support for those most impacted by the pandemic across all ages; people living alone, the clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable, as well as their carers and others in their household.
  • Ensure everybody has the advice and information they need in order to overcome loneliness and support friends and family members that may be struggling emotionally, maximising approaches for all ages on NI Direct and Covid-Wellbeing Hub.
  • Ensure that Covid-19 restrictions guidance continues to allow for support bubbles for single person households, and meeting an individual from another household outdoors, as long as it continues to be safe. These exceptions should be promoted clearly in guidance and wider communications to ensure people do not restrict themselves from permitted interactions that could have significant benefits for their mental health.
  • Commit to developing an all-ages Loneliness Strategy with inclusion in the Programme for Government bringing together all sectors – including community and voluntary organisations and the health, faith and business sectors for action across society.
  • Maintain the enhanced investment in Discretionary Assistance and keep the criteria of self-isolation and other supports under review to meet emerging need, particularly for younger age groups where financial need is high.
  • Attach psychosocial and emotional support, including one to one support referrals, by default to financial support, to reach and support those most vulnerable including those who are chronically lonely.

Loneliness was an enormous, and underappreciated, challenge even before the pandemic. Covid-19 has increased the issue’s complexity.

However, the importance of tackling it should be clear. Everyone wants Northern Ireland to recover well from the pandemic. In many ways, loneliness is a bellwether for that.

It is an emergent consequence from so many of the individual negative effects of Covid-19 and the public health measures to take on the virus.

It is hard to see how the Executive will be able to successfully get on top of the pandemic without also getting on top of loneliness. A dedicated strategy may be long overdue, but there is no time like now.

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