• Isolation and loneliness has been a key issue during the pandemic, with 7.2% of adults reporting loneliness from Oct 2020 – Feb 2021 
  • The impact of loneliness on health – physical and mental – is significant  
  • Across the country innovative social prescribing projects are connecting people to improve outcomes and transform lives 
  • The National Academy for Social Prescribing is playing a key role in supporting work in this area by working with key partners through its Thriving Communities Programme 

Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges of our time, affecting people of all ages and background (Campaign to End Loneliness) and has been exacerbated by COVID-19. Since spring 2020, when the first national lockdown began, levels of loneliness in Great Britain have increased, from 5% feeling lonely ‘often’ and ‘always’ (April and May 2020) to 7.2% (October 2020 to February 2021) – equivalent to 3.7 million adults.

Loneliness is more than just a sense of isolation. It is associated with increased mortality risk for both men and women, lonely individuals are at higher risk of the onset of disability, and loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and decline.

There’s also an economic impact, with researchers at London School of Economics (2017) estimating that health costs and local services related to loneliness costs £6,000 per person for a decade of an older person’s life. It’s not only older people and related services that are affected – the Co-Op estimate that loneliness related ill health and sick days cost UK employers £2.5 billion every year.

Social prescribing provides a way to reverse these trends, offering an opportunity to connect people to their local community, and help them form relationships.  The NHS has committed to increasing the number of social prescribing link workers to help address loneliness and isolation as a result of the pandemic. Link workers give people time, focusing on ‘what matters to me’ and taking a holistic approach to people’s health and wellbeing. They connect people to community groups and sources of advice, practical and emotional support, across a range of activities that are typically provided by voluntary and community sector organisations, for example, volunteering, arts activities, group learning, gardening, befriending, cookery, healthy eating advice and a range of sports. In essence, it helps people get more control over their health, to manage their needs and in a way that suits them.

When social prescribing works well, people can be easily referred to social prescribing link workers from within their local area, for example, from the NHS – general practice, pharmacies and hospital discharge teams – to fire service, police, job centres, social care services, housing associations and voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations. People can also refer themselves.

There are a number of projects being run by voluntary, community, faith, social enterprise and third sector groups being supported by the National Academy for Social Prescribing’s Thriving Communities Fund. Thriving Communities is a national support programme run by NASP in partnership with Arts Council England, Historic England and Natural England, NHS England and Improvement, Sport England, the Money and Pensions Service, and NHS Charities Together, supporting communities impacted by COVID19 in England, working alongside social prescribing link workers.

In Leeds arts and social change organisation, Space2, is working with the Yorkshire Cricket Foundation and Feel Good Factor, plus a range of community partners across the city, on a social prescribing programme to deliver activities which tackle social isolation, improve wellbeing, and support communities.

Emma Tregidden, Joint CEO of Space2, said: “Supporting people who are socially isolated is in our DNA.  We understand that some people are extremely vulnerable, and difficult to reach, so we’ve developed a blended approach to encourage them to join in with activities – from zoom and face-to-face meetings to delivering activity packs to people in their own homes.  We also make regular support calls to those who are most isolated.”

Helix Arts will be supporting young carers in North Tyneside through a range of activities that result in an improvement in skills, experience, social agency, health, and address loneliness and social isolation.

Cheryl Gavin, Director from Helix Arts says “Carers in our community have been adversely hit by COVID-19. Especially unpaid carers, those who are often forgotten about and not accessing the support they need. The pandemic has had such a significant impact on carers, this programme will increase capacity to support them through and beyond.”

Thriving Communities Bristol is a cross city partnership being led by creativeshift, who have been delivering arts on referral as part of social prescribing for the past five years. The Thriving Communities project will build on their learning, and work with partners to expand the offer. Participants from programmes speak about the sessions enabling them to meet new people and feel more connected to their communities: “I joined because I was isolating myself through depression so this gave me a chance to gain confidence, getting back out and socialising with people….it has made me happier”

Bureau Centre for the Arts are running the Thrive Blackburn and Darwen project. Through the creation of a social prescribing hub venue at the Bureau and a co-created outdoor space, partners will link arts provision with green recovery. Cath Ford, Director says: “Loneliness and social isolation are already a real issue for lots of people in our town and people who felt lonely before Covid tell us that they feel even more so now. Nearly all of the everyday events and activities that might keep people in contact with others have been paused and as we slowly begin to emerge, we hope our Thriving Communities programme will offer simple and creative ways for people to reconnect and provide moments of companionship, laughter and hope.”

The Thriving Communities Programme also helps raise the profile of existing projects happening across the country, as part of NASP’s strategic objectives to make some noise and spread what works.

Musical Memories is a not for profit organisation based in Ryedale North Yorkshire,  created to give older people the opportunity to sing together and enjoy each other’s company with the aim of combatting loneliness and isolation. “Never has this been more needed than in the past tumultuous year,” says Ruth Hannah, founder. “Since the start of lockdown we have delivered over 180 livestreamed sessions with over 25,000 views, reaching people in all parts of the country. 90% of our participants said that sessions helped them to get through the pandemic by helping to beat feelings of loneliness and isolation.”

Community Links Volunteers hosted by Voluntary Action Camden have been providing ‘Chat and Link’ support, where isolated residents receive weekly calls, supporting them to build connections to help them as they emerged from lockdown. “Mainly they chat, introduce ideas, and encourage trying things out , but they might also ‘accompany’ the resident to an online art class or exercise group for example. When that person is ready to venture out they are already connected with other local people and activities. It’s been incredibly helpful for so many people,” says Donna Turnbull, Community Development Manager at Voluntary Action Camden.

James Sanderson, CEO of NASP says “Numerous studies have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated loneliness, and many individuals have been adversely affected. Through social prescribing we can help individuals connect or reconnect with their local communities via support and activities that matter the most to them.”

Over the past year, NASP have supported the government’s work to tackle loneliness as part of the Tackling Loneliness Network, which is made up of over 80 organisations from across the public, private and charity sectors. This year, NASP will join government and Network members in reminding people that it is important to take action to support yourself or others who might be feeling lonely. The Let’s Talk Loneliness campaign provides simple steps on the ways that people can do this.

In 2018 the government launched A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change was published, setting out a framework for tackling loneliness and isolation, following a call to action from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.