How do we prevent a ‘loneliness pandemic’?

Our Group CEO, Helen Milner, looks at the important role digital inclusion can play in reducing loneliness

The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the digital divide. The pandemic has also exacerbated loneliness and isolation. 

According to What Works Wellbeing, the number of people experiencing loneliness in the UK appears to have more than doubled – from 8.5% in 2019 to almost 1-in-5 in 2020. They say that “people who felt most lonely prior to Covid in the UK now have even higher levels of loneliness”, and found that those who “are young, living alone, on low incomes, out of work and/or with a mental health condition” were most at risk of being lonely.

Over the past month, we’ve seen a number of influential reports on loneliness launched. The APPG on Loneliness and the British Red Cross have published their first inquiry report, ‘A Connected Recovery,’ which makes several key recommendations to tackle loneliness in the UK – identifying digital as vital for reducing loneliness. Last week, I spoke at a panel event on this report alongside the DCMS Minister, Matt Warman, where he recognised the importance of digital infrastructure for tackling loneliness. 

Meanwhile, the Lords Covid Committee, chaired by Baroness Martha Lane Fox, recently published their first report, ‘Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World.’ They said that “there is a legitimate fear that the digitalisation driven by one pandemic could result in another: a pandemic of loneliness.” They also highlighted a recent Government study which estimates that the cost of loneliness on public services is about £9,500 a year per person.

We know that digital skills and access can have a marked impact in improving mental well-being and reducing loneliness. Last year, the Lloyds Consumer Digital Index found that those who are online feel they are more able to connect with others, and feel less lonely and more connected to other people and their communities. 87% of those surveyed said the internet helped them connect better with friends and family, whilst over half said it made them feel more part of a community. And the latest report from Nesta Scotland and Y Lab puts this into perspective by sharing Rhys’ story, for whom the internet has significantly helped to reduce their loneliness by offering a means of conversation and connection throughout lockdown. 

Nearly two thirds – 64% – of our hyperlocal community partners have provided emotional support calls during the pandemic, whilst over a quarter delivered food and medicine. 

Helen Milner

At Good Things Foundation our model is to work with and coordinate a national network – of places in villages, towns and cities where vulnerable local people can gain skills and access to the digital world. We know this plays a significant part in increasing social connection alongside digital skills.

In so many ways, our network of community partners has been invaluable in tackling social isolation. Over 1,000 of our local partners were open and active during lockdown. During the pandemic they have supported digital skills development remotely, whilst also providing devices and data. But our hyperlocal partners have done so much more to reduce loneliness. Our research shows that nearly two thirds – 64%have also provided emotional support calls, whilst over a quarter delivered food and medicine. 

We know the concept of this national network of local, trusted places is popular with the public. Polling by Ipsos Mori in August last year found that 75% of adults agree that every community needs a place where people can visit to get help with Internet skills, such as how to do online banking, and access online education. (1)

Our recommendation to the APPG on Loneliness was that we should not see the fixing of digital inequalities as separate from improving loneliness and social cohesion. Instead, we proposed four crucial steps.

First, we want to see a joined up, coordinated strategy to fix the digital divide. This should be led by the PM and the Cabinet Office. It is critical that this involves all government departments and is coordinated to ensure that the work of public, private and charity sectors complements and addresses any gaps.

Secondly, a coordinated, hyperlocal network – such as the one we lead – must play an important role in this strategy. We’re keen to grow our digital inclusion network so that there is a place in every village, town and city through which vulnerable local people gain skills and access to the digital world.

Third, we need to end data poverty. To tackle this, we’ve just launched the Data Poverty Lab with Nominet. This looks to collaborate, coordinate and innovate to ensure that working together we can bring affordable internet to everyone on low incomes and free solutions for people struggling in poverty. 

And crucially, we will only fix the digital divide with investment. For the spending review we calculated that £130 million would help 4.5 million adults to cross the digital divide, and help to fire up the post-Covid economy as well as level up opportunity and tackle social isolation.

By no means are we recommending that digital replaces all face-to-face. But without effort on digital inclusion, we will exclude many millions of people. And as the House of Lords Covid-19 committee suggests, if we do not fix the digital divide, we risk a “pandemic of loneliness.” We cannot allow this to happen.

Let’s make sure that everyone is able to stay connected – with their families, their friends, and their communities. Let’s invest in this national and nationally coordinated network of trusted places, to provide those who are isolated with opportunities to socialise, and allow millions to get online. 

And let’s tackle loneliness, by fixing the digital divide. 

 


  1. Research by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Good Things Foundation. A nationally representative quota sample of 2,219 UK adults aged 16-75 using its online I:Omnibus between 28.08.20-31.08.20

Helen Milner OBE

Group Chief Executive

Helen Milner OBE is the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. Founded as a staff-led mutual charity in the UK in 2011, Helen led the establishment of a subsidiary charity, opening an office in Sydney in August 2017, and running the Be Connected Network for the Australian Government.

Helen has over 30 years experience of working in and leading organisations creating and delivering education over and about the internet. She was awarded an OBE for services to digital inclusion in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.