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Inquiry findings into keeping socially connected during Covid-19

Updated: May 21


Social integration

Our Anna Chaplaincy Church Lead, Julia Burton-Jones, took part in the recent All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) webinar on social integration (14 May 2020), and sends this summary of key points which emerged:


Discussion focused on the report on a recent inquiry into ‘Social Connection in the Covid-19 Crisis’ (published on 13 May 2020). This is the first part of the APPG's response – a further inquiry will happen later this year.


Risk factors for greater sense of social isolation include:

  • Digital exclusion – 5.3 million (10% of adult population) are internet non-users and 11.9 million lack basic digital skills to get by in today’s world. Older people, low income groups and asylum seekers are particularly excluded. 18% of adults do not have access to a smartphone. Less affluent families lack the necessary hardware, with several people sharing one device.

  • Being required to self-isolate

  • Unemployment

  • Being in a single-person household

  • Limited fluency in English

  • Living in deprived, high-churn neighbourhood where you don’t know neighbours


Social connections

Many reported feeling a greater sense of belonging to their community (56% of respondents in one poll said they feel more connected to their community as a result of Covid-19), but there has been an increase in hate crimes against Chinese and other south-east Asian people and community tensions around perceptions that some groups are not social distancing.


Many feel more anxious and lonely – 24% of people in a YouGov poll said that they were more lonely than before the virus, and differences according to age were found, with 39% of 18–24-year-olds feeling lonely compared with 18% of those aged 65 and over.


Also, there were some intergenerational tensions – health impacts were felt more by older people, economic impacts by younger people.


Understanding the risk factors which make people more vulnerable to social isolation is important, as it helps suggest solutions. Protective factors can also help ameliorate some of

the risks of social isolation. For example, while older people are more likely to experience digital exclusion or live in single-person households, they also tend to have stronger social bonds within their immediate neighbourhoods. Polling supports this assertion, with 70% of those over 65 saying that they trust their neighbours to see them through the current crisis, compared with 46% of 25–34-year-olds.


Local resilience forums are working to combat the impact of the coronavirus.


Responses to the crisis

Civil society and faith organisations, councils, business and other organisations have worked very hard to respond to the crisis, making sure that vulnerable people are reached and undertaking work to reduce social isolation.


As well as meeting people’s practical needs, civil society and faith organisations (and sometimes other bodies such as housing associations, residential homes and schools) are delivering projects that aim to reduce social isolation.


There have been missed opportunities – e.g. using the opportunity provided by delivering food and meals to have a socially distanced conversation with the person. Some groups are starting to combine these roles.


Telephone-based strategies and letters have been used by civil society-led initiatives to overcome digital exclusion, but there is a need for digital champions to help those not on the internet to achieve basic skills.


Volunteering

Nearly 3,000 Covid-19 mutual aid groups have sprung up, but they identified 25 local authority areas (including Dartford in Kent where some Anna Chaplains are based) where there was a paucity and these were in areas with high population churn, few community assets, lower levels of trust, high levels of social isolation, lower skilled people with a lower proportion of graduates, marked income and ethnic divides, and lower levels of civic participation. Close-knit small- and medium-sized towns have better trust and more mutual aid. The report acknowledged more informal groups (e.g. WhatsApp and neighbourhood groups) might be in place, but no mutual aid groups in these 25 areas were identified. Mutual aid is a driver of social integration.


Community relations

Faith organisations have been at the forefront of work to deliver practical support. While faith groups have made sure that they look after vulnerable members of their congregations, almost all faith organisations involved in the response to the crisis are assisting everyone in their local areas, irrespective of their faith. The active involvement of faith communities in providing practical support appears to be playing a useful role in bridging faith divides, although it is not possible to draw conclusions on the long-term impact of this on social integration.


Examples shared include the Church Urban Fund’s Together Fund's network in Lichfield and their ‘people of hope’ campaign.


Ethnic disparities in the impact of Covid-19 will have an effect on community cohesion, and there is also evidence of hate crime and the far right exploiting the crisis and online conspiracy theories against Muslims.


The sustainability of civil society organisations was an issue highlighted throughout the inquiry, with many charities poorly equipped to cope with loss of income (73% have incomes under £100,000). At a time when they are needed more than ever, being overwhelmed by demand for their services, their financial well-being is under threat. The report said it is vital some of the government’s £750 million fund via the National Lottery to help charities goes to smaller and faith-based charities, which are key to social integration.


Recommendations:

  • Learning and best practice to be disseminated via Connection Coalition

  • Digital champions drawn from NHS volunteers (many frustrated at under use)

  • Access to wi-fi for homeless people and asylum seekers while libraries are closed

  • Plans to harness the legacy of volunteering in response to Covid-19

  • Social media companies take down hate speech


Themes from the discussion following the presentation of the study findings

  • Initial consensus that the optimism and altruism of the early days is starting to diminish. Future Britain focus groups showed a marked change between views expressed three weeks ago and this week. Other people are being seen more as a threat, and the empathy and social mixing needed for social connection is harder to achieve in this time of social isolation. A view was expressed that faith and community leaders could play a key role in encouraging unity.

  • Top-down versus bottom-up volunteering initiatives were discussed. A speaker from the think tank Onward said their recent research showed bottom-up responses were more effective. Some of the volunteers in these informal responses are involved in other volunteering so understand the structures around things like safeguarding and confidentiality, but there have been instances of volunteers not practising safely where they have had no previous experience or training to call upon.

Left-behind communities

  • We were asked to vote at the end of our priority for action. The most popular option (voted for by 43%) was providing support for left-behind communities.

Julia Burton-Jones, 14 May 2020

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