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How common is loneliness? 

Around 47% of adults in England experience loneliness occasionally or more often, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Community life survey 2019/20 (2020). 

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis in 2016/17 suggested that people with a long-term disability, widowed homeowners, unmarried middle-agers and young renters,  experience the greatest likelihood of feeling some degree of loneliness.

Results from the Community Life Survey 2019/20 are shown below: 

 England Community Life Survey 2019-20

Notes: Table excludes respondents who answered “don’t know” and those with missing answers. A limiting long-term illness (LLTI) or disability is classified as someone having any physical or mental health condition or illness which are expected to last for 12 months or more and their condition and/or illness reduces their ability to carry out day to day activities. “Quintiles” represent 20% or one-fifth of all areas. Data presented with error bars for 95% confidence interval.

Source: Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Community life survey 2019/20

Covid-19 and loneliness

Coronavirus-related social-distancing and lockdown measures have had a profound impact on individuals and communities. There are particular concerns about resulting increases in social isolation for many people who have been shielding, living alone or in a care home, and for those who have lost loved ones.

Research suggests the risk factors associated with loneliness during the pandemic remained the same, but those already at risk (e.g. young adults aged 18–30 years, people with low household income and adults living alone), experienced a heightened risk of experiencing loneliness.

The Office for National Statistics has been monitoring the impact of Covid-19 and ‘lockdown’, on loneliness. Its latest estimates for between 19 to 23 May 2021 indicate that around 23% of the population in Great Britain reported feeling lonely often/always/some of the time. This represents around 12 million adults in Great Britain.

On 22 April 2020 the Government announced a plan to tackle loneliness in response to the pandemic. As part of this, the latest ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’ was launched, and further measures such as ‘support bubbles’ were introduced as lockdown measures were eased in 2020.

Section 1.1 of this briefing gives more information and covers the UK Government response to the pandemic’s impact on loneliness. 

The financial costs of loneliness 

Some academic research has suggested that loneliness (or social isolation) is linked to poorer health outcomes, including early death, higher rates of depression and cognitive decline. Loneliness may lead to higher costs in the public and private sector due to greater service usage, absences and productivity losses. One 2017 report by the New Economics Foundation estimated that loneliness costs UK employers £2.2-£3.7 billion per year (p. 35).

The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness (2017)

The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness published its report, Combatting loneliness one conversation at a time: A call to action, in December 2017. Many of its recommendations were adopted by the UK Government. This included adding cross-government work on loneliness to the remit of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society (now the Minister for Civil Society and Department for Culture Media and Sport).

The Government also announced two funds to combat loneliness – £98 million for the healthy ageing programme and £20 million to support organisations working to combat loneliness (including a new £11 million Building Connections Fund).

The UK Government’s Loneliness Strategy (2018)

The Government’s loneliness strategy, A connected society, was published in October 2018. It set out how the UK Government would provide “national leadership” through a range of measures. These included:

  • Using ONS measures as its standard means of measuring loneliness.
  • Initiatives to enable everyday services to connect with people at risk of loneliness, such as social prescribing (using ‘link workers’);
  • Strengthening local infrastructure, developing community spaces, and ensuring loneliness is considered in the housing and planning system;
  • Reducing stigma and raising awareness of the importance of social connections; and
  • Supporting community groups and digital inclusion (i.e. having the skills to use digital devices, connectivity, and appropriate assistive technology).

The first annual progress report (January 2020) said priorities for 2020 would include improving data relating to loneliness, design policies for children and young people, and address loneliness through strengthening community infrastructure and assets, and growing people’s sense of belonging.

The second annual report (January 2021), focuses on loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic. The Government said it would concentrate on reducing stigma, ensuring loneliness is considered in policymaking, and improving the evidence base on loneliness.

Strategies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland 

The Strategy extends to England only, but the UK Government intends to ensure that the work is complementary with other nations. Scotland published its own strategy, A connected Scotland, in December 2018; a Welsh strategy was published in February 2020. Northern Ireland‘s Departments for Communities and Health are separately preparing scoping studies on loneliness. Some separate departmental strategies are in place.

Further reading 

The Library has produced a reading list on loneliness. The reading list includes academic, third-sector and official reports and statistics on loneliness, its health and other impacts, government strategies, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the incidence of loneliness amongst different groups of people. 

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