Imagine the classic ice-breaker scenario: if you had to leave your house immediately, and could only take one thing with you, what would it be?
Emergency situations, whether real or imagined, have a way of bringing things into sharp focus. And the coronavirus pandemic has likewise brought adjustment to many of the nation’s priorities. Suddenly, what once seemed important – the outcome of the current Premier League season, say – now appears considerably less so, whilst new challenges seem to emerge out of nowhere. (How many of us thought more about handwash and toilet paper supply in the first week of lockdown than we ever had done before?)
As the reality of the health emergency facing our nation began to sink in, and the government’s recommended social distancing measures became increasingly severe, many of us were forced to ask the question, “What matters most?”. The government, too, has faced a similar re-evaluation. With officials from a number of departments redeployed to work on the coronavirus response, a number of policy agendas that had been front-and-centre have temporarily receded.
But there is one policy area that has been considered indispensable: loneliness. Last month the Culture Secretary launched a new campaign to get the nation talking openly about this issue, whilst loneliness was announced as a key priority of the £750 million funding package for charities.
It’s not hard to see why. Even before the lockdown, loneliness affected an estimated nine million people in the UK. For those already lonely, policies of restricted movement and “social isolation” could well make things worse. At the same time, for the rest of the population, the need to remain indoors for extended periods brings the issue much closer to home. It’s clear that, for young and old alike, the prospect of increased loneliness presents a public health challenge of its own.
But what if this very real challenge also offered an opportunity? What if the current emergency sparked a wave of response that laid a foundation for change long after the threat of COVID-19 has passed? In the coming months, as the government begins to talk about easing the lockdown, the challenge of loneliness won’t automatically go away. But perhaps we will all be more aware of what it feels like to face isolation, and perhaps our communities – our neighbourhoods, faith groups, and charities – will be more ready to offer support to those who need it most.
We are already aware that communities up and down the country are doing much to tackle loneliness. FaithAction’s own report, published last year, highlighted this. And our recent publication, Extending Our Reach in Tackling Loneliness, takes a look at social prescribing as just one way in which faith groups can link into health and care structures to help those who are lonely and isolated.
There are clearly increased opportunities for all of us in these times. The voluntary sector must consider how services can shift and adapt, and we have seen some excellent examples – from innovative befriending schemes to the creative new approaches to youth mentoring from our own team. On a personal level, the power to tackle loneliness often rests in our own hand: sometimes the smallest act of kindness to someone in our sphere can make a huge difference.
Because, as we continue to assess our priorities at this time, and as our thoughts shift to family and friends who may well face a continued period of shielding, perhaps we are realising that it isn’t our possessions – or toiletries! – that matter most, but our relationships.