May 27 In my diary entry for April 8, I wrote that:
“Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences. On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice. In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots … On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening. It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses. Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden.” I concluded that, “Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen.”
Now the evidence is beginning to appear to answer this question. The crisis has stimulated the creation of a number of major research projects across the social sciences, which have been planned, funded and put into practice in a remarkably short space of time. One of the largest of these is the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study. This is a questionnaire-based survey which currently has 90,000 respondents. It is not a representative statistical sample of the population, but is large enough to generate substantial conclusions. The research team, led by Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe, have a sophisticated grasp of the concepts and categories of mental health, and are publishing weekly bulletins of their findings.
The ‘Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 8’, on 13 May, was particularly interesting.* Table 21 measured the incidence of ‘Loneliness’ on the industry-standard UCLA loneliness scale. This was unchanged across the lockdown period at around 5%. This is the same level as more cautious observers and social historians have projected across the entire post-war period, and about a quarter of the claims made in the Government’s current loneliness strategy. Whatever else it is doing, the covid19 epidemic is not causing an epidemic of loneliness.
The team found that the condition was “higher amongst younger adults, those living alone, those with lower household income levels, and those with an existing diagnosed mental health condition. They are also higher amongst women, people with children, and people living in urban areas.” It was correspondingly lower than 5% amongst those over 60, those with higher incomes, those without mental health conditions, and those living without children.
Table 27, by contrast, measured ‘Activities missed during lockdown.’ At the top of the table, not surprisingly, were ‘Meeting up with family’ and ‘Meeting up with friends.’ Half way down was ‘Having time alone.’ This was the solitude measure. The analysts broke down the emotion only by age. The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to be lacking time alone.
What is really interesting is the volume. Just over thirty per cent of the population were included in this category.
In other words, after an extended period of lockdown, solitude is being sought by six times as many people as are experiencing loneliness.