Matt Vickers: The lockdown has increased loneliness. Some will need help to reconnect.

9 Jul

Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South. He is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness.

Are you itching for things to get back to normal?

Are you looking forward to that holiday, trip to the pub, meal with friends?

Like me, do you feel like you’ve been cooped up at home forever, and are just bursting to live a full life again?

What is it you’re missing most?

A long walk on a sandy beach? That first cold frothy pint? Your favourite restaurant’s fish and chips?

Probably. But it’s bigger than that, isn’t it?

It’s the people we miss most.

As lockdown eases and we venture out more, it’s the people we’re looking forward to seeing – our family, friends, and workmates; people we connect with at our football matches, bingo halls, and places of worship.

For many, that will be easy but, for some, they will face challenges that make it harder to get back to normal because lockdown has compounded their isolation and loneliness.

A new British Red Cross report – Life after lockdown – reveals how big those challenges are and, this week, I chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness where we discussed its findings. What the report shows is that lockdown is affecting some people more than others.

People from Black, Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, younger people, those on lower incomes or unemployed, people who live alone, those with underlying health conditions, and parents with children at home are the loneliest of all.

As many as 41 per cent of UK adults surveyed feel lonelier since lockdown began, with 33 per cent saying they haven’t had a meaningful conversation in the last week. We all have work to do to help people connect and feel part of their communities again.

At this week’s APPG, we heard from 22-year-old Harry Foreman from the Co-op Foundation’s Lonely Not Alone campaign and he told us of his experiences graduating from university and suddenly having to leave behind some of his closest friends during the Covid-19 crisis. He said:

“There’s no handbook for graduating during a pandemic.”

But that’s true for all of us, isn’t it? We’ll all have to adapt in some way.

I’m lucky to be part of a vibrant community in Stockton and have been inspired by the sight of volunteers – both organised and spontaneous – who have been helping the most vulnerable with things shopping and other essentials.

I’ve been trying to play my part too, teaming up with Age UK to help constituents who are feeling lonely.

That spirit must blossom beyond this crisis because people were feeling very lonely before lockdown and many are feeling lonelier because of it – they’re going to need our help as we recover. Members of Parliament have a big role to play.

We must argue for sustained funding for services that help people overcome loneliness while looking to find ways of addressing the reasons why people become so lonely in the first place, like financial hardship and mental health.

We can champion approaches to health like social prescribing that put the focus on activity and interaction, helping people connect and improve their wellbeing through groups, classes, and events.

Rather than looking just at medical options, we need to look at social solutions – doing something you enjoy, meeting other people, forging quality relationships, feeling less lonely, feeling healthier.

It’s clear that, whenever we look at people’s health, there are inequalities at play in our society that impact on our ability to thrive, strive and prosper – MPs have to be at the forefront when it comes to tackling those too.

We can perhaps see loneliness as a signifier that other things may be going wrong in a person’s life and get to work addressing those issues and health concerns.

The Red Cross, Age UK, Mind, Sense, and many others have been supporting people throughout this emergency and will continue to do so when the crisis is over.

The examples of this sort of good work in my own constituency are just too numerous to mention and I know those people who have leapt to action to support others will want to continue to play their part in helping the most vulnerable.

Now is not the time to simply salute that good work alone. Now is the time to build on it.

Rough sleeping has fallen sharply. The challenge is to stop it rising again.

9 Jul

Ending rough sleeping poses a particular challenge in a free society. That is because it is not only a matter of making help available, but of persuading those who need it, to accept it. Another complication is that the help required goes beyond accommodation. The lack of a bed to sleep in is invariably a symptom rather than the cause of an individual’s difficulties.

The coronavirus prompted greater urgency for the Government to take action. Ministers had already outlined in February a determination to find a long term solution – with the assistance of Dame Louise Casey.

Though this issue is a moral disgrace and source of national shame the numbers involved are relatively small. The latest snapshot survey for those sleeping rough on one particular night last autumn came up with a figure of 4,266. The BBC gave a figure of 28,000 (based on FOI requests to local authorities) of different people who had slept rough at one stage or another over 12 months.

How many have come off the streets during the coronavirus crisis? 15,000 have been provided emergency accommodation – though not all of those were rough sleepers. Some are from hostels and shelters which have had to close due to social distancing rules. Others will be those who would otherwise have got by as “sofa surfers”. There will also be those escaping domestic violence. However, there might also be around 5,000 who came straight from the streets.

What is impressive is how high the acceptance rate has been from the rough sleepers offered a room. Many have been surprised it has been so high. Only a few hundred are thought to have spurned an offer. It could be the attraction of a hotel rather than a more humble shelter. It could be fear of the coronavirus. Then there is the tough choice that getting food – or the money to buy food – while staying on the streets would be harder. As noted, coercion is not available, but the tone of encouraging people to accept help has been emphatic rather than passive.

Amidst the statistical fog, a couple of points emerge. Firstly, that in proportion to the population, the number of rough sleepers was already tiny. The population of England is 56 million. It follows that accommodating them is a relatively modest claim on the public purse. Providing for others – children, pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled – are vastly more costly items. Secondly, that the already small number sleeping on the streets before the pandemic has fallen substantially.

Dame Louise says in an interview for The Big Issue:

“I was due to do a review into rough sleeping and homelessness but we have all been turned upside down by Covid-19. The primary motivation so far was led by Covid-19 to do an extraordinary thing in unprecedented times, which was to say, “Let’s just get everyone in.” We had everybody getting on the phone to hotels, getting [charities] St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Look Ahead in London to stand up enough staff to literally in a couple of weeks add to the estate in London by 2,000 beds.

“We were chasing the virus just trying to stay ahead of it. When the inquiry eventually comes saying: “How did you do it? Why did you do it? And what choices did you make?” We just went for it, everybody went for it. We had to get everybody in, we cannot have people dying on the streets. And we cannot have people dying in communal night shelters and that is the prospect that we were facing. We need to be clear that right now we are dealing with this extraordinary situation where 15,000 people have been accommodated at this time.

“I’m not saying that we don’t want to work out how do we not return to the situation that we have seen in the last few years. But our primary purpose so far has been to keep people safe. That will remain our primary purpose, but at the same time we feel that we should see this as an opportunity to think that we can get something extraordinary out of this but that will take an extraordinary effort. The homelessness sector itself and the wider community also needs to think, at this horrific time in our nation’s history, what they can do to help as opposed to what they call on the government to do.”

Jeremy Swain, the Government’s adviser on homelessness, was also interviewed. He said:

“I was involved with Housing First in the 1990s and I’m a big fan, but the problem is there is a slight danger that we think that everybody in those hotels at the moment needs wraparound support and they need it for a long time. What we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting. That’s what they want – when I was at Thames Reach and you put out the questionnaires, 75 per cent of people wanted the services to help them get jobs. Consistently it is bottom of the list for the homelessness sector when for the people themselves it is top of the list.”

That is the tricky part. Amidst Government spending of £850 billion a year, funding an extra 5,000 hostel beds is a footling item. (That’s even before we consider the £10 billion a year we give to charity, often to help the homeless.) Getting those who have taken a wrong turn in life back on the path to proud, independent, and responsible existence is harder. Getting a job would be a pretty obvious ambition. Often that will mean overcoming such afflictions as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I found that very little specialist accommodation was provided – even though the Council had a very substantial Public Health budget which was largely wasted.

Many of those in emergency accommodation have been put up in hotels that would otherwise be empty. It is welcome that hotels are going back to normal business as the economy reopens. That does mean that alternative places to stay are needed – though some hotels are extended their contracts for emergency accommodation. Some universities have made rooms available in their halls of residence – after all college authorities need the money and these rooms would otherwise be empty at present. Some YMCA hostels have single rooms. Then councils have managed to find rooms for some in the private rented sector.

In the long term though, the Government plans new hostel places for 6,000. Much of this will be for specialist housing to cater for particular medical conditions. That will be crucial for these unfortunate souls to have their lives turned around.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” declared Winston Churchill. The signs are encouraging with respect to the impact of the pandemic on rough sleeping. A passive response from the authorities to those sleeping in shop doorways and along underpasses is no longer acceptable. Most of those people have already made some reconnection with society and there is every chance that it will not be broken.