Tackling social isolation and loneliness: consultation analysis

Analysis of responses to our 'Connected Scotland: tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger communities' consultation.

1. Executive Summary

In January 2018, the Scottish Government opened a public consultation on its draft strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections in Scotland. The aim of the consultation was to help the Scottish Government better understand what needs to change in communities to address these important social issues, and what local and government leaders and other key stakeholders can do to create the conditions to allow social connections to flourish.

The consultation received 419 responses from individuals - members of the public and professional stakeholders - and organisations, as well as written summaries from 17 public engagement events. The Scottish Government commissioned Kantar Public to summarise the views contributed in response to the consultation and draw out key themes and findings in the responses, which are captured in this report.

More detail on the consultation context and the research methodology can be found in Chapter 2.

Key findings

Perceptions of the value of the draft strategy

Responses to the Scottish Government's draft consultation were constructive, and respondents felt the draft strategy could be improved to ensure it succeeds in addressing these issues. Respondents welcomed the draft strategy and felt it was a step forward in addressing the important issues of social isolation and loneliness, though it needed to be more specific and detailed. Responses also indicated that the draft strategy felt removed from the lived experiences of social isolation and loneliness, and that specific groups at risk, for example older or disabled people, should feature more prominently in the draft strategy. Respondents may not have fully appreciated the strategy was a draft because responses suggested an expectation the strategy should read like a comprehensive plan for tackling social isolation and loneliness, including more specific indicators and measures, key stakeholder responsibilities, timescales, and how it would be funded.

Feedback on the definitions of social isolation and loneliness also featured in responses. Collectively, responses reflected a tension between making the definitions more specific and inclusive of individual experiences and simplifying them so they are more easily understood. Like the responses to the draft performance framework, respondents felt the definitions were removed from the individual and emotional experiences of social isolation and loneliness, which risks people not relating to the definitions. Respondents felt the definitions could be improved by including the subjective, emotional experience of social isolation and loneliness in an accessible and relatable way that avoids placing blame on an individual for their circumstances. Also, through a more detailed analysis of risk factors that lead to social isolation and loneliness.

More detail on perceptions of the draft strategy and definitions can be found in Chapter 3.

Features of support

Consultation responses mainly covered suggestions for what could be done to address social isolation and loneliness, what support is needed, and who is seen to be well-placed to deliver this support. The main features of support included in responses were: policies and regulation, sustainable funding, education and training, and designing and delivering support. Responses commonly featured six key stakeholders that were seen to be involved in leading on and delivering support, including: government, local authorities, private sector and employers, health and social care, third sector organisations, and schools. These key stakeholders were seen by respondents as having overlapping responsibilities related to tackling social isolation and loneliness, summarised in Figure A below.

Figure A: Summary of features of support and perceived stakeholder responsibility

Figure A: Summary of features of support and perceived stakeholder responsibility

Policies and regulation

Respondents' views showed an expectation for government to demonstrate leadership on the issues of social isolation and loneliness, and seek to address the contributing factors through policies and regulation. Austerity featured in responses both directly and indirectly, with references to limited funding or funding cuts, and there was an expectation that the government should be increasing funding of essential public services and third sector organisations. Respondents also felt the government could address known issues contributing to social isolation and loneliness through policy, as well as strengthen enforcement of existing policies that enable social connections, such as disabled access to public buildings. Finally, the government was expected to reduce barriers that third sector organisations and volunteers encounter, like the cost of insurance policies, and streamline the process for applying for funding.

The private sector and, more specifically, employers were also seen to have a role in addressing social isolation and loneliness by prioritising employees' wellbeing and facilitating opportunities for social connection. Employers were well-placed to help spread awareness of social isolation and loneliness and signpost employees to relevant support. Responses to the consultation underlined the importance of having flexible, family-friendly, and inclusive working policies, for example greater flexibility for employees that have carer responsibilities.

Sustainable funding

Consultation responses highlighted the negative impact of austerity and the desire for government to increase funding to public services and third sector organisations. For example, respondents emphasised third sector organisations' need for sustainable funding to respond to social isolation and loneliness. Third sector organisations were noted as operating 'hand-to-mouth' and could grow their impact if they had access to additional funding. Sustainable funding also empowers community organisations to respond to the needs of their community in a locally-relevant way. Respondents also mentioned the private sector had a role to play in funding community organisations as part of their corporate social responsibility.

Education and training

Respondents felt there needed to be greater awareness of social isolation and loneliness as issues, and that education and training are required to establish a collective awareness of and responsibility for these issues. The government was seen as well-positioned to create a national awareness campaign or awareness week for social isolation and loneliness, much like what has been done for other issues like mental health. The private sector, health and social care, and schools were also expected to play a role in raising awareness and signposting those in need to relevant support, for example by hosting seminars or placing informational posters in visible places.

Designing and delivering support

Respondents often noted that a 'one-size fits all' approach to designing and delivering support would not be effective, and that there is a need for a range of support and opportunities for social connection. This included support options that are accessible and approachable, and either organised around a theme or activity or targeted at demographic groups. Both informal, casual opportunities (like walk-in cafes) and more formal, organised opportunities (like interest groups) were appealing. In addition, support was most effective when it was co-located or clustered near other services, to enable pooling of resources and helping individuals more easily access a range of support or amenities.

Many respondents saw social prescribing as an effective way of connecting individuals to relevant local support, which would be reinforced by greater investment in community link workers and a database that centrally collates local support options. Volunteers were seen as essential to the delivery of support and respondents felt more could be done to harness this resource, for example by promoting 'micro-volunteering' opportunities.

More detail on features of support can be found in Chapter 4.

Factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness

Consultation responses reflected on what factors contributed to social isolation and loneliness in Scotland, and suggestions for overcoming these. Four themes featured prominently: transportation, housing, public spaces and digital technology.


Limited transportation options and access barriers to available transportation were seen to contribute to social isolation and loneliness, particularly for those living in rural communities and disabled people. In rural communities and the islands, poor transportation connections to public spaces and amenities and lack of coordination between modes of transport were cited as barriers to social connection. Respondents felt more needed to be done to join up modes of transport to ensure people can get where they need to go.

Accessibility was particularly a concern for older and disabled people, and respondents indicated a need for door-to-door transport. 'Active transport', such as walking or cycling, was suggested as an alternative to other modes, and respondents felt the government should better maintain and develop foot and cycle paths to make this a safe mode of travel. While charities and social enterprises can help meet some of these needs, respondents felt government should invest more in transportation to enable social connection.


A perceived lack of safe, secure, and affordable housing was seen to not only undermine an individual's wellbeing, but also contribute to social isolation and loneliness. For example, lack of accessible housing options limits disabled people's choice in where they live and may result in them living away from their social networks. Respondents expected the government to support access to affordable and accessible housing. Respondents also felt that housing lacked communal spaces that foster informal and formal social interactions, and that government could promote community-based housing to address social isolation and loneliness.

Public spaces

Free, accessible, and safe public, community, and recreational spaces were seen to foster social connection, but some individuals experience barriers to accessing these spaces, with some communities noting they are not available. Respondents feel community spaces are integral to facilitating social connections, like by hosting activities. However, these spaces, as well as other communal spaces like libraries, were seen to be on the decline or closed. Respondents felt the government could do more to maintain these spaces.

Respondents also cited practical barriers to using community spaces, such as accessibility or the cost of use. Where possible, public and community spaces should be centrally located, connected to transport, accessible and free of charge. Outdoor communal spaces were seen to facilitate casual social interactions, and respondents felt outdoor spaces could be improved to reinforce this, for example by ensuring footpaths are well-lit and placing benches in gardens and other public spaces.

Digital technology

Digital technology can facilitate social connection, particularly where it links people to in-person activities or services. It was also viewed as beneficial for rural communities and disabled people as a way of overcoming geographical and physical barriers to social interaction. Barriers to connection brought on by digital technology included lack of access for those that are digitally excluded, over-emphasising use of digital technology undermining value of face-to-face connection, especially for younger people, and cost of and access to broadband, particularly for rural communities or low-income individuals. Respondents suggested expanding broadband coverage, having Wi-Fi in public spaces, and providing access to computers and broadband in community centres. Overall, respondents felt digital technology should supplement rather than replace in-person social interactions.

More detail on factors contributing to social isolation and loneliness can be found in Chapter 5.


Consultation responses were engaged, constructive and solutions-focussed. Those who took part identified what they saw as the main barriers and key support needs for tackling social isolation and loneliness in Scotland. Responses suggest that tackling social isolation is not going to be a 'quick-fix' and that communities require traditional investment in public and social services that support community life and social connection. Responses set expectations of different stakeholders' role in tackling social isolation and loneliness, helping to identify priority areas for future work:

  • Leverage existing channels: the government and key stakeholders should identify existing channels, such as workplaces or schools, to engage with people at risk of or suffering from social isolation and loneliness and build capacity to effectively and appropriately respond.
  • Focus on the lived environment: transportation, housing, public spaces, and digital technology shape an individual's daily life and can either facilitate or limit social connection. Well-connected, accessible transport; housing and public spaces that enable informal and formal social interactions, and digital technology that enables both online and face-to-face interactions may help to address causes of social isolation and loneliness.
  • Empower communities: Respondents saw a need for both top-down and bottom-up approaches to tackling social isolation and loneliness, and felt that government could empower local communities to respond to these issues through greater clarity in policy and investment.
  • Address chronic social isolation and loneliness: The draft strategy did not distinguish between acute and chronic social isolation and loneliness, and responses to the consultation did not comment on the differences in approaches for the different types of needs. Those suffering from chronic social isolation and loneliness may require more individualised, intensive support than the responses captured in the consultation suggest.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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