In the age of social distancing we must combat loneliness by bringing meaningful connections closer to home
Government must “design out” loneliness from people’s lives by building housing, neighbourhoods and infrastructure with social connection in mind.
Of all the lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic, the most significant is the ripple effect between our health as individuals and the health of our wider society.
When we think about health, we tend to think about the basics. Watch what you eat. Exercise regularly. Get a full eight hours of sleep a night. But, after a year of spending more time at home than ever before, do we properly consider the health impact of the places we live and the social connections we make there?
The fight against Covid-19 has brought the importance of the nation’s wellbeing into focus. Beyond the obvious health concerns underscored by the virus, the pandemic has pushed the issue of loneliness to the forefront of the national conversation.
Many people have experienced loneliness over the past year. Recent British Red Cross research showed 38 per cent of UK adults felt loneliness was having a negative impact on their mental health during the pandemic. For some it will have been the first time. For many it will not be the last.
As lockdown eases, we can’t forget those still at risk of living disconnected and isolated lives
As a member of the APPG on Loneliness, I’ve seen just how devastating loneliness and social isolation can be for people and communities across the UK. From older people and the most vulnerable to those who are young and healthy; loneliness has become a national affliction.
I’ve also seen how simple it is to protect people from the impact of loneliness by building meaningful connections into people’s everyday lives.
Social distancing has shown many of us what it’s like to be unable to meet people and forge connections. But, as lockdown eases, we can’t forget those still at risk of living disconnected and isolated lives. We must continue to bring interactions closer to home. For me that starts with housing, transportation and public spaces.
We must build community infrastructure that helps people forge connections safely - allowing people to prioritise their mental health without jeopardizing their physical wellbeing.
There must be a concentrated effort to “design-out” loneliness from people’s lives. This means building new housing developments and neighbourhoods with social connection in mind. Focusing on open, communal spaces, warm, intimate lighting, comfy seating, and integrated transport links.
We must do this inclusively and ensure older people and those with disabilities are able to access these spaces without creating additional barriers to connection.
Research from the Red Cross shows 30 per cent of UK adults say a lack of facilities like public toilets, local bus services or accessibility adaptations will prevent them from meeting people when restrictions lift, while more than two fifths (42 per cent) are concerned about feeling safe using public facilities and spaces while coronavirus is still present in the UK.
We must combat this by ensuring community spaces are wheelchair and mobility aid accessible and carrying out minor repairs and adaptations to amenities regularly to enable people to remain living independently in their own homes, close to their existing support networks, for longer.
We can’t do this without the help of the people these issues affect. We must work with those most at risk of being left behind, including older people and those with disabilities, to design residential spaces, facilities and transport services that work for them.
Local and national governments need to band together to address the serious lack of affordable housing across the country. This is a problem that prices many people out of their neighbourhoods, severing vital connections in the process.
We must underpin these radical changes to infrastructure by helping people forge meaningful relationships in their communities – so that they can feel that crucial sense of belonging. The first step should be to set up a sustainable fund to support Voluntary, Community Faith and Social Enterprise (VCFSE) sector action on loneliness - bringing people together to build greater resilience in our nation’s towns and cities. Investing in community hubs at the heart of the places we live, and work can also make a big different.
With excellent progress being made in the nation’s vaccine roll-out, hope for a return to normality is now on the horizon. But we must not leave the nation’s lonely and isolated people behind as we return to our day-to-day lives.
Covid-19, more than any other crisis, requires us to place the needs of the nation’s most vulnerable at the heart of our recovery. That means coming together to connect our communities with the aim of building housing, infrastructure and transport links that strengthens people’s lives.
Only then can we address the social fault lines exposed by the pandemic. By prioritising social connection at home - as well as in wider society - we can begin to build a kinder, more inclusive and better connected United Kingdom as the pandemic recedes from view.
Liz Twist is the Labour MP for Blaydon.
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