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3.7m over-16s in Britain often or always feel lonely, ONS finds 

Almost one in 14 people aged 16 or over in Great Britain say they are lonely, up 40% since last spring, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Between April and May last year one in 20 people aged 16-plus surveyed said they felt lonely “often” or “always”, and that increased significantly between October and February this year to a proportion equating to 3.7 million people.

The deleterious effects of loneliness have increasingly been highlighted in recent years, with warnings that it can be as bad for someone’s health as having a long-term illness such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

The ONS found that areas with a high proportion of younger people and those with higher rates of unemployment tended to have greater levels of loneliness, with the effects in both cases particularly strong in urban areas outside London.

Vivian Hill, the chair of the British Psychological Society Covid-19 isolation and confinement group, said: “The pandemic has just brought it [the loneliness epidemic] into really sharp focus, and it’s exacerbating the situation. My view is that maybe we’ve learned a few things as a society, that human beings do need to be connected, and maybe our day-to-day going out into the world, going into our jobs or to our places of learning, once that [is stripped] away, it’s revealed the hollowness, the life experience of many young people beneath that – that it’s either a question of being out and about with your friends or completely alone.”

The ONS said living in a single-person household, difficulties with relationships caused by the pandemic, and not having anyone to talk to had contributed to experiences of loneliness. Areas with strong local businesses and adult education tended to have lower rates of loneliness, with local authorities in London particularly benefiting.

Overall, local authority areas in the countryside had the lowest loneliness rates.

Among people who said their wellbeing had been affected by coronavirus in the last seven days, those aged 16 to 24 were approximately four times as likely to report feeling lonely in the past week as people aged 75 and over.

Wales was the country with the highest loneliness rate (one in 12), followed by England (approximately one in 14) and Scotland (about one in 15).

Wycombe in Buckinghamshire had the highest proportion of over-16s who said they felt lonely often or always (nearly one in five), followed by Blackburn with Darwen in Lancashire; Corby in Northamptonshire; and Middlesbrough in north-east England. Blackburn, Corby and Middlesbrough are among the areas with the highest Covid infection rates in England.

The lowest loneliness rate was in Fylde, Lancashire (approximately one in 68).

In December last year the UK government announced a £7.5m fund to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in England.

Hill said she would like to see a focus on “how do we structure and shape our society to be more supportive of more people’s mental health and wellbeing”, with an emphasis on bringing people together across age groups and those out of work, who may not have the same sense of identity and opportunities to meet others afforded by employment.

“Maybe give people a role and a purpose, a way of bringing them together and making them feel connected with other people,” she said. “Not in some kind of punitive way of you’ve got to go out [to] weed the park or sweep the streets, but just thinking about what offer might be made. Just to give people a chance to come together with other people and, on a voluntary basis, make those connections.”

The data was gathered through the ONS opinions and lifestyle survey, which has a weekly sample size of approximately 4,000 to 4,500 people.

Olivia Field, the British Red Cross’s head of health and resilience policy, said: “It is crucial that efforts to tackle loneliness and reconnect communities are put at the heart of national and local recovery plans as we plot a course out of this crisis.

“A recent report from MPs and peers showed how simple things like a good bus service, public toilets or a local park help people make quality connections, and when they’re lacking, many end up living a more isolated life. That’s why we’re calling on the prime minister to lead the effort to loneliness-proof our communities as we all work together to build a better future post-Covid.”

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