The silent Covid nightmare: loneliness

Feeling alone found to have significant detrimental effects on health

Loneliness. Getty Images
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Around 3.7 million adults in the UK felt chronically lonely by early 2021 as Covid-related lockdowns continued, research has found.

The figure is a rise of more than 1 million since April 2020, nearer the start of the pandemic, the Campaign to End Loneliness said.

Chronic loneliness – often or always feeling alone – was found to have negative effects on health and mortality.

The development was particularly acute in the 18-30 age group, those living alone, the unemployed or people on low income, as well as those with mental health conditions.

Those aged 16-24 were more likely to report lockdown loneliness compared to over 65s, with older people appearing more resilient or holding lower expectations of social contact.

“But the challenges and negative emotions attached to loss of social contact and missing friends and family have been described across generations,” the report said.

“Younger people have reported stress, anxiety, anger, boredom and frustration, along with a sense of loss about cancelled plans and missed rites of passage.

“At the same time older people have reported missing time with friends and family that couldn’t be recaptured. This has been especially distressing for those reaching the end of their lives, who fear they will spend their last months without their family and friends.”

Changes in circumstances for those already struggling meant they sometimes became even more lonely than before.

“Covid-19 has opened everyone’s eyes to loneliness, which is why a large majority of people in our survey agreed that loneliness will be a serious issue even beyond the pandemic,” said Robin Hewings, programme director of the Campaign to End Loneliness.

“More of us have been touched by loneliness personally and it has opened up conversations about this serious issue. If we pay deliberate attention to loneliness as we try to build back better, we can support those who are already lonely and pursue a truly connected recovery."

Ethnic minorities were more likely to report feelings of loneliness compared to white people. The report says a range of factors are behind the divergence, including income and employment.

The group said the UK must now work towards a post-pandemic recovery by rebuilding and delivering effective support.

“The pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in our society – in access to services, financial security, access to green space, and mental and physical health,” said the report.

“These have exacerbated the risk of chronic loneliness for groups already at risk. As we build back from the pandemic, addressing these structural inequalities will be critical.”

The authors urged the UK government to prioritise “connection” in its post-pandemic investments – for example by protecting community areas, funding travel and supporting green spaces.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 2:10 PM