Social isolation and loneliness: Recovering our Connections 2023 to 2026

A Plan to take forward the delivery of A Connected Scotland – our strategy for tackling social isolation and loneliness and building stronger social connections.

Section 3 – Our starting point: How connected are we now?

The Scottish Household Survey 2018 was the first to include a question on loneliness. The results of the survey showed that 21.3% of people reported feeling lonely at some point in the previous week. The figure was higher than the average for: people in the age groups 16 – 24, 25 – 34 and 75+; women; minority ethnic groups; those living in urban areas and the most deprived communities. It was substantially higher for disabled people.

The Impact of COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the protective restrictions imposed to control transmission of the virus unfortunately increased the likelihood of social isolation and loneliness for many people.

The pandemic worsened social isolation and loneliness across the whole of society, but as before, the effect of social isolation and loneliness is seen to be unequally spread. The biggest increase in loneliness during the pandemic was seen in older adults (aged over 60)[6], whilst groups identified as experiencing the highest rates of loneliness were 16-24 year olds, disabled people, those on lower incomes[7], and those with a pre-existing mental health condition[8].

Regular polling data on the societal harms of the pandemic tells us that, during 2020 and 2021, around half the people surveyed reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the previous week.[9] Around 1 in 7 people reported being lonely most, almost all, or all of the time[10].

This is supported by the findings of the Scottish Household Survey 2020, published in January 2022, which found that 35% of adults reported feeling lonely at least some of the time in the last week, and 44% rarely or never met others socially.

The Impact of the Cost Crisis

Results of an online opinion poll released in December 2022 by YouGov for British Red Cross[11], showed that 81% of Scottish people agreed that the increased cost of living will make more people lonely. 43% said that they would restrict how much they socialise because the cost of living is going up.

It is not difficult to foresee that the ongoing cost crisis will have an adverse effect on levels of social isolation and loneliness.

"Socio-economically disadvantaged people are more likely to experience poorer mental and physical wellbeing, lower life satisfaction, and feelings of loneliness, all of which either have already been impacted by COVID or are likely to be impacted by an economic downturn and increased poverty"[12]

Who is most affected?

Disabled people or people with long-term conditions

The proportion of people reporting loneliness in the Scottish Household Survey 2020 was highest for disabled people at 48% (compared with the survey average of 35%). Experiences of isolation and loneliness have persisted well beyond lockdown for this group of people, with a higher percentage reporting that they still felt cut off from friends and families in early 2022[13].

Individuals with a pre-existing mental health condition reported higher loneliness and lower levels of social support during the pandemic than those with no pre-existing mental health condition[14].

Young People

The Scottish Household Survey 2020 identified 16-24 year olds as one of the groups with the highest reported rates of loneliness – 48% of those surveyed reported being lonely at least some of the time in the previous week, against an average of 35%. In 2021, 71% of 10 – 25 year olds responding to a Co-op Foundation survey reported feeling lonely at least occasionally, and 15% said they felt lonely often or always, whilst 70% of those who felt lonely said that it had negatively affected their mental wellbeing[15].

People on low incomes

As the protective restrictions began to be lifted in early 2022, far fewer people felt cut off from family and friends (25% compared with 56% in March 2021), but the effects were not equal, with disabled people and people on low incomes considerably more likely still to be feeling cut off from their friends and families[16]. As noted above, social isolation and loneliness is expected to worsen as a result of the cost crisis.

People who are digitally excluded

British Red Cross research during the period of the pandemic identified communities at increased risk of loneliness including minority ethnic communities, parents with young children, young people, people living with long-term conditions, people on lower incomes and those with limited access to digital technology and the internet.[17] The research suggests that the loneliest people felt least able to cope with and recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

2021 research by the University of Glasgow[18] into the effect of the pandemic on social relationships and health has found that during the pandemic there has been a loss of 'weaker' social ties. Although there have been new opportunities, such as online support, there are inequalities associated with access to these.

People living alone

The Scottish Household Survey 2020 found higher rates of loneliness reported for lone parents (64%), single adults under pension age (63%) and single adults over pension age (46%)[19]. In 2021, British Red Cross research identified those living alone, clinically vulnerable people and carers as being particularly isolated[20].

People living in deprived areas or without access to green space

There is a noticeable effect of place on experiences of isolation and loneliness. Those in more deprived areas are less likely to agree that there are places in their neighbourhood where people can meet up and socialise. Overall, 33% of people say they have less access than before the pandemic, to the kinds of places where they might meet up with or bump into other people[21].

The Scottish Household Survey 2020 found higher rates of loneliness reported amongst people living in deprived areas (44%) or large urban areas (37%).

Access to green spaces and social inclusivity have also been associated with a decrease in reported loneliness by research conducted in England and Wales, whereas population-dense or overcrowded places are linked to higher levels of reported loneliness.[22]

Research recommendations

The University of Glasgow research[23] recommends the importance of an 'intelligent balance' between online and offline ways of relating, and the building of stronger, sustainable local communities, noting the provision of green spaces as a particular benefit for physical activity, mental health and social bonding.

Progress to date: Since A Connected Scotland was published

The Scottish Government makes policy in collaboration with those who are affected by it, and in order to embed a cross-sectoral approach, the National Implementation Group was set up in 2019 (renamed the Social Isolation and Loneliness Advisory Group in 2021). The group is co-chaired by the Minister for Equalities and Older People, and the COSLA Community Wellbeing Spokesperson. It comprises stakeholder organisations who work across a range of areas including health, physical activity, youth work, disability, family support, culture, local government, volunteering and befriending.

In 2020, work across Scottish Government was realigned to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It was apparent that pandemic restrictions were severely exacerbating the already existing problems of social isolation and loneliness, and that stakeholder organisations were facing an increased demand for their work to address this problem.

As part of the emergency response, in December 2020 a Winter Fund was approved, giving 15 organisations a share of £967,000 to strengthen their capacity to meet growing need. This was followed by a Summer Fund, running from August 2021 to March 2022, providing 9 organisations with a share of £993,000 to continue this emergency response to the COVID-19 situation. A further £971,019 was allocated in January 2023 to support activity to tackle SIAL and mitigate the impact of the cost of living crisis over the remaining winter months. These funding packages have enabled organisations to:

  • Maintain helplines
  • Carry out 'kindness calls' / 'friendship calls'
  • Provide learning activities, wellbeing support and online events
  • Work with young families facing adversity, stigma and exclusion
  • Offer online and telephone befriending
  • Set up small grants programmes for grassroots projects
  • Undertake youth work and mental wellbeing activities
  • Support disabled people and carers.

During 2020-21, the Scottish Government created the 'Clear Your Head' campaign to highlight practical things people could do to help them feel more themselves, such as keeping connected with friends and family and spending time in nature.

The Scottish Government's Covid Recovery Strategy[24] aims to address systemic inequalities. It highlights that people want a recovery which recognises the value of social connections, and addresses inequality and the harms caused by the pandemic. The strategy sets out a commitment to a Collective National Endeavour, building partnerships with local government, the third sector, business and communities in order to build financial security for low income households, improve the wellbeing of children and young people, and ensure good green jobs and fair work. It is within this context that we have developed the SIAL Plan.

Developing the Plan

This plan has been informed and influenced by:

  • Engagement with colleagues working in many portfolio areas, in recognition that tackling SIAL is a shared responsibility across Government, including colleagues working on strategies and initiatives in the areas of:
    • Equality and Inclusion
    • Volunteering and Third Sector
    • Participatory Budgeting
    • Local Governance Review
    • Mental Health and Wellbeing
    • 20 minute Neighbourhoods and Local Place Plans
    • Child Poverty
    • Community Learning and Development
    • Youth Work Strategy
    • New Scots Refugee Integration
    • Personal and Social Education
    • Connecting Scotland
    • Transport
    • Housing to 2040.
  • The members of the Social Isolation and Loneliness Advisory Group, who shared feedback on behalf of those they represent about their experience of SIAL, who advised on priorities, and who helped to shape the plan. We are grateful for their contribution and their expertise. In discussions during 2020 and 2021, the Group called for the following to be prioritised:
    • Capturing and sharing learning from the pandemic response
    • Capturing and sharing evidence about what works to tackle SIAL
    • Balancing short, medium and longer-term actions in the plan
    • Addressing people's anxieties and reluctance to re-connect post-COVID-19
    • Consideration of unpaid carers and other affected groups who lack access to services
    • Explicit consideration of protected characteristic groups most affected by SIAL
    • Ensuring that public spaces can facilitate re-connection
    • Opportunities and permission to innovate
    • Easier access to small amounts of funding
    • Longer-term funding to help sustainability, and to ensure organisations can evidence impact
    • Widespread engagement across the whole of Scottish Government



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