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Governments / Community resilience

Closing digital divide crucial to reducing impact of social isolation, APPG warns

By Andrew Sansom 22 May 2020 0

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed a huge digital divide in the UK that needs to be addressed through the long-term commitment of government, educational establishments, employers and civil society, while reviews of communities’ social infrastructure capacity and programmes to strengthen volunteering should also be explored.

That’s part of the conclusion of an initial report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, which has been holding an inquiry about social connection during the COVID-19 crisis. 

The public health emergency has highlighted the importance of social connection for our own wellbeing and for society a whole, says the APPG report’s executive summary, which also acknowledges the outpouring of neighbourliness and mutual aid, and new ways to try to limit people’s anxiety and loneliness. But it also recognises the challenges that the crisis has raised. While food delivery support has been there for those judged to be in clinical need, marginalised individuals outside this group have become even more isolated. The APPG also notes reports of community tensions, while it highlights, too, that the long-term impact of the crisis on social integration is unknown. 

The inquiry’s findings look at the impact of the COVID-19 emergency on social isolation, community relations, responses to the crisis, and volunteering. 

Social isolation and community relations

On the first of these issues, the report acknowledges that many different people are at risk of social isolation in the COVID-19 crisis. Risk factors include the requirement for self-isolation, unemployment, living in a single-person household, digital exclusion, limited fluency in English, and living in a deprived, high-churn neighbourhood where people are less likely to know their neighbours. And the report notes, too, that people experience social isolation differently. While there are higher rates of digital exclusion among older people, young people are more likely to report feeling lonely. The 2019 UK Consumer Digital Index found that 11.9 million people in the UK lack the basic digital skills they need to get by in today’s world – with older people, low-income groups and asylum-seekers among the groups most likely to experience digital exclusion. 

On the second issue, the report notes that the crisis appears to have had a unifying effect, with polls finding that many people report feeling a stronger sense of belonging to their local community. But it warns, too, that inter-generational relations will be tested if the health impacts of COVID-19 are being felt most by older people, while the economic impacts disproportionally fall on younger people. 

Responses to the crisis and volunteering

Looking at responses to the crisis, the financial vulnerability of some civil society organisations working with socially isolated people has been highlighted. And while there are examples of successful innovation, the report suggests there are some missed opportunities to address social isolation. It points out that not all organisations making food drops, for example, encourage their volunteers to speak to recipients of support, by phone or on arrival at a two-metre distance. Reducing social isolation needs to be integral to the work of these organisations, says the report.

And on volunteering, the report highlights the emergence during the crisis of ‘mutual aid’ – an activity that bridges informal and formal volunteering. This sees groups of people come together and agree to support each other, as well as reaching out to help vulnerable members of their local community. However, the report also notes that cities and large towns with high population churn appear to have lower levels of mutual aid, compared with more close-knit small and medium-sized towns. 

Understanding the prevalence and evolution of mutual aid groups is important, says the report, which adds: “Their presence is an indicator of people’s propensity to help others who live in their neighbourhood and of community resilience and social integration. If they survive beyond the crisis, these mutual aid groups have the potential to increase the levels of social connection, reciprocity and trust that characterise socially integrated areas.”


On the basis of these findings, the APPG sets out a number of short- and long-term recommendations. In the short term, it argues that a consideration of social connection and social isolation should be embedded into the Government’s overall response to COVID-19, the work of local resilience forums, as well as into the day-to-day activities of organisations delivering food and medicines to isolated individuals. 

It calls on councils during the crisis to entrust a cabinet lead with the remit to cover social isolation and volunteering, and it backs the extension of digital champion schemes, where volunteers support those who lack digital skills and confidence. It also stresses that learning from initiatives to reach socially isolated people must be evaluated and shared, while organisations who are recruiting volunteers, as well as the Government, should start planning to harness this legacy now. 

In the long term, the APPG is calling for the Government, educational institutions, employers and civil society to work to reduce digital exclusion. 

It argues that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should review the Integrated Communities Action Plan and other relevant policy to take into account the COVID-19 crisis. This review, says the report, should ensure that areas with a weaker social infrastructure and less volunteering and mutual aid are not further left behind. 

And, in addition, the APPG urges the Government to put in place a programme of work to strengthen local volunteering and increase its levels among groups less likely to volunteer. 

“It is our shared hope that we are at the end of the first phase of this pandemic,” says the report, “but everybody is aware that it is likely to change our lives for many months to come. This inquiry, having heard the evidence of the immediate responses, will now turn to the longer-term challenges for policy makers if we are to emerge from this unexpected crisis with our desire for a more inclusive society strengthened by our responses.”