As the clocks go back, the nights draw in and the leaves fall from the branches, we sense the start of winter. This will be no ordinary winter; we have not experienced a rampant infectious disease which forces us apart and denies us our freedoms in this season before.
For those living on their own it will be the most testing of winters. Few of us enjoy those dark evenings, but for the 8m people living alone in the UK, there will be new challenges to navigate. Half are over 65 years, 1 million have no children to call on them.
While we all have had periods of loneliness, 2 million have a chronic experience of this. Those joys in life which carry us through of seeing family and friends will be so much harder if we cannot enter each other’s homes this year. Zoom calls are no substitute for a chat over a cup of tea, and for those who are digitally excluded, options for contact are curtailed further.
We know that Covid-19 discriminates against the most vulnerable and elderly; it discriminates against the lonely too. While the Public Health England Report, ‘Covid-19: review of disparities in risks and outcomes’ highlights how it shows no mercy on the most frail, those who experience chronic loneliness are also its victims. Older people will be isolating, protecting themselves against the pandemic and many other commutable illnesses to avoid needing the NHS, the isolated will be further detached from society.
Those in care homes, may once again be denied visits from loved ones. Others who have experienced bereavement will hear the silence echoing around their empty homes.
People will sense significant loss in not seeing children, meeting friends or even engaging with public services. Some cannot risk going to the shops, not least those who are extremely clinically vulnerable.
We already know that students are struggling, away from home at the start their adult life, Covid-19 has confined them to digs as they are locked down in unfamiliar places.
The mental health of the young, old and disabled people alike is being pushed to new limits. For those who experience loneliness, they are being stretched to find new levels of resilience. We are relational beings, we long to be together, and yet we are forced apart.
Like the star which drew kings and shepherds, Christmas itself is the beacon of hope that we look to to get us through this season. It is a time when community pulls together, a time when families gather and a moment to look forward to. But unless planned for now, unless every segment of the economy seeks to prioritise this, for many the day will be like the last. Community lunches cancelled, lockdown rules applied and grandparents not being able to hug their grandchildren.
We cannot cancel the virus for a day but we cannot cancel Christmas for the virus. Without meticulous planning, the present that nobody wants to receive could spread into a disastrous NHS winter crisis.
We need the test and contact tracing system to be far more pro-active in locking down the virus, not people and communities. This is why Labour are calling for local Directors of Public Health to take charge as they best know their local populations and can ensure that they will be kept safe for Christmas.
We need services and organisations to reach out to everyone who is isolated or lonely with socially distanced visits or phone calls and to create space for the most vulnerable to safely venture into their community. This is why the voluntary and community sector needs Government intervention to secure their finances now as demands rise on them this season. It is the charities which reach deep into communities and rescue our neighbours from loneliness.
We need schools and universities to release children in time to ensure that they are Covid-free for Christmas. We need workplaces to do everything possible to do the same.
Christmas, important as it is, is just one day. Loneliness engulfs people every day. Our spotlight on Christmas must also pivot society to reach out on all the other days too. There is no magic cure for loneliness, but we are all the solution with a role to play. What will you do?