We are living through a pandemic. It’s pervasive, penetrating all areas of our society. While those who are isolated or elderly are viewed to be most at risk from its symptoms, I can guarantee it has touched everyone reading this column, either directly or indirectly. And I’m not talking about COVID-19, but about loneliness.
While the loneliness epidemic pre-dates the current crisis, COVID-19 and its associated restrictions have exacerbated its effects. Research from the Mental Health Foundation indicated rates of loneliness more than doubled during the first lockdown, with the impact particularly felt among young people.
Loneliness and isolation are major social problems that present no one-size-fits-all vaccine. Tackling them requires a holistic approach, bringing together the whole public sector. One element that remains key are the UK’s libraries.
Research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) in Manchester found more than 80% of library users who experience feelings of loneliness or isolation felt the library helped combat these feelings.
The survey also indicated that respondents felt the library served as an information hub and community centre, providing visitors with an opportunity to meet others and engage in social activities.
Despite this, CIPFA data shows that total spending on libraries in Great Britain decreased by nearly £20m over the last financial year – a reduction of 2.6% from 2018/19 – indicative of the strain that continues to be placed on council services and the impact on resources vital to vulnerable members of our communities.
As hope of a return to some kind of normal following the COVID-19 vaccine emerges, thoughts must turn to comprehensive funding reform for local government that allows equally pervasive threats to be addressed.
Rob Whiteman CBE is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy