Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future, which is the secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Social Integration.
The lockdown has affected us all. It has a good claim to be the most shared national experience in the 75 years since the Second World War ended. We have all been subject to the same legal restrictions on so many of the simple things that we could take for granted a few weeks ago.
Yet our experiences of the pandemic have also been very different: for those learning to home-school children or others living alone; for those working from home while others go out to keep essential services going; and for the quarter of the workforce placed on furlough who wait anxiously to hear when key sectors of the economy might begin to reopen.
Amidst the human tragedy of the lives lost, the pandemic has illuminated many strengths of civic commitment in Britain today. There has been a broader social consensus on the short-term public and policy response to the pandemic in Britain than in Donald Trump’s America – and, maybe less predictably, than in Germany too. This casts doubt on the idea that British society has been inexorably polarised by the political arguments of recent years.
Yet there will be significant challenges in a new economic and social context to ensure that the response to the crisis does not mainly strengthen social connection in the areas where it is already strong. That is a key message in a new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Social Integration today, reflecting on the initial experiences of those trying to reach the socially isolated during the Covid-19 crisis, and the lessons for the transition out of lockdown and beyond.
It finds much innovation in the crisis, emphasising the importance of thinking about how human contact can be part of the offer of practical help awhile maintaining social distancing. It can be an unsatisfactory experience when “the shopping is there, but the person isn’t” as Professor Dominic Abrams of the University of Kent notes.
Digital exclusion was a serious issue before the pandemic, but the Coronavirus crisis has raised the stakes significantly, with many vital services primarily available online. There are still five million adults – around one in ten – who are not online. Twice as many lack the skills and confidence to navigate the online world effectively.
As Peter Gibson, the MP for Darlington, notes, the old-fashioned methods of communication, the phone call and the knock on the door, remain vital to ensure that nobody is excluded. There are many good schemes recycling donated laptops and phones to those who need them, and these need to be supplemented with ‘Digital champion’ schemes, where volunteers offer hands-on training and support, on the phone and in person once possible.
There is a major opportunity from a surging public appetite to volunteer, as long as this can be effectively harnessed. Over three quarters of a million people signed up to volunteer for the NHS within days, while over 300,000 people have volunteered locally. Stronger infrastructure is needed, to ensure that those who try to make a contribution are not frustrated by being given nothing useful to do. Sustaining this NHS volunteer army with local opportunities, including as digital champions, will be a crucial way to create a sustained legacy from the volunteering surge.
Yet there is also a parallel challenge from the distribution of civic efforts. Before the crisis, around a third of people were involved in formal volunteering. That was twice as common in the most affluent as the least well-off areas. Analysis of the Covid-19 mutual aid groups for the APPG report suggests that they replicate this pre-existing pattern.
On average, each mutual aid group covers a population of around 25,000 people – but in several large towns and small cities there is just one group for every 100,000 people. If there are fewer groups where there may be more social need – particularly areas of high population turnover, more deprivation and more social isolation – cooperation between local authorities and the mutual aid groups can help them to bridge divides.
As Will Tanner of Onward notes, drawing on the think-tank’s work in Barking, Dagenham and Grimsby, the challenge is to ensure that the crisis does not widen gaps in the social fabric.
So the “levelling up” agenda needs to think about civic and social infrastructure as well as the economic impacts of the pandemic – to ensure that it is not just the more cohesive communities which benefit most from social connection, increasing the gap for areas with least social capital.