The All Party Parliamentary Group has published a new report following its recent Social Integration inquiry into social connection during the Covid-19 crisis. It finds that the lockdown has reinforced the importance of digital inclusion in this era, and has also demonstrated the importance of the ‘old-fashioned’ ways of communicating – through letters, the telephone and knocking on the door to ensure that no one is excluded. All of these findings have a relevance ofr the disabled community. Below is the Foreword, with the full report available here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an extraordinary event in all of our lives. Across the country, we have seen a strong level of commitment to looking out for each other. If this lockdown has been a shared experience, we have all been aware that it has not been experienced equally. The lockdown has been experienced differently for those with families and those who live alone; for those in secure work and for those furloughed or laid off; for those with confidence online and for those adapting to new technologies, or who lack access to them. In taking evidence, APPG members have been impressed by the energy, innovation and resilience with which many people and groups responded so quickly to the new challenges of the pandemic and the lockdown in addressing old and new issues of social inclusion. The aim of this inquiry has been to make a practical contribution, in both the short term and over time, to learning the useful lessons from this crisis.
We have sought to learn from best practice in overcoming challenges, so that it can be shared with others, and also to identify the barriers and hurdles which those working on the ground are experiencing, and which policymakers might help to break down. What are some of the early lessons from this initial phase? The lockdown has reinforced the importance of digital inclusion in this era. Yet it has also demonstrated the importance of the ‘old fashioned’ ways of communicating – through letters, the telephone and knocking on the door – if nobody is to be left out. There has been a great upsurge of willingness to volunteer and to look out for each other. The challenge for policy-makers, both locally and nationally, has been to ensure that we have the infrastructure and capacity to ride that wave – and to work out how best to channel and to sustain it. That civic capacity is not always equally spread to where the need is.
So there is also a challenge for everybody interested in levelling up voice and power in our society to meet the needs of areas with less civic activity and capacity. My experience in Darlington, in common with MPs serving their own constituencies around the UK, has been one of awe-inspiring, humbling pride in the willingness of people to come forward; giving their time to help in collecting food and prescriptions for those who are shielding, sewing scrubs for our local hospital, and our amazing children who have decorated windows with inspirational rainbows. These have been truly extraordinary times, with every business, every charity and every public sector organisation having to rapidly adapt and change to a world none of us could have imagined would be the case in 21st century Britain. In coming forward to help, it is clear that boundaries are broken down, new friendships made, and connectedness is improved.
It is essential that the positives of this crisis, it’s unifying spirit seen each Thursday night with the Clap for Carers and the inspiration of Captain Tom Moore, are harnessed for the benefit of our society so as to leave a lasting legacy. It is our shared hope that we are at the end of the first phase of this pandemic – but everybody is aware that it is likely to change our lives for many months to come. This inquiry, having heard the evidence of the immediate responses, will now turn to the longer-term challenges for policy-makers if we are to emerge from this unexpected crisis with our desire for a more inclusive society strengthened by our responses. The APPG members are especially grateful to Holly Lynch, as chair of the group, for doing much of the work in conceiving of this short inquiry, and in conducting the evidence sessions for this interim report. We congratulate her on her appointment to the Labour party frontbench team, as shadow immigration spokesperson. The Social Integration APPG looks forward to continuing to engage with her in that role, as part of its future cross-party engagement on these issues of shared national importance.
The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on how we connect with each other. People have been asked to practice social distancing, and some groups have been asked to self-isolate and avoid all face-to-face contact if possible. In such a situation, concern has been expressed about loneliness and isolation, with worries that some groups of people will fall through the safety net. There have also been reports of hate crime meted out against people of Chinese or south east Asian ethnicity. The long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on social cohesion is unknown; there is certainly a risk of increasing social divisions if different sectors of society experience the health or economic impacts of the crisis differently. In contrast, the crisis has prompted an outpouring of neighbourliness, mutual aid and volunteering, and a growing sense that the crisis has brought people closer together.
YouGov’s COVID-19 tracker suggested that 46% of respondents thought the crisis had mainly unified society7 with 40% of people feeling that since the coronavirus outbreak began there was a stronger sense of community in their local area8. Over 750,000 people have signed up to be NHS volunteers and nearly 3,000 new mutual aid groups have been set up to offer support in their local communities. Polling for the thinktank Onward found that nearly half of people (48%) say they are willing to deliver supplies to people who are self-isolating9.
Social integration and the COVID-19 crisis
It is in this context that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration has decided to hold a short inquiry about social connection during the COVID-19 crisis. The APPG is a cross-party group of parliamentarians who meet to look for policy solutions that break down barriers to integration and which create opportunities for people from all walks of life to connect with each other and build bonds of trust. Social integration is itself a contested term and there has been much writing which has sought to define this term. However, there is a consensus that social integration is a two-way relationship involving:
• Fairness and opportunity;
• Social connectedness;
• Shared values, reciprocity and trust: social bonds that link us both locally and nationally; and
• Participation in economic, social and political life.
Integration has often been narrowly framed as a condition or outcome that applies to migrants and this country’s ethnic and faith minorities. As a two-way process, integration is rather an ‘everybody’ issue that requires consideration of how we bridge generational, economic and other divides as well. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to disrupt social integration. But the generous response of so many people is an opportunity to look to the future and to build a more socially integrated society. The APPG plans to examine learning from the COVID-19 crisis and the legacy in relation to social integration.
About the inquiry
There will be two parts to the inquiry. This is the report of the first phase, held in April 2020 while social distancing measures were in place for all of the UK population. At this time the APPG could not take oral evidence in parliament or host formal meetings. Instead, the secretariat put out a call for written evidence which ran from 20 March – 17 April 2020. Three online oral evidence sessions were also held via video conferencing platforms with recordings of these sessions available on the APPG’s website http://www.socialintegrationappg.org.uk. A list of those who provided evidence is given in the appendix of this report.
Questions that the first part of the inquiry looked at included:
• What issues has the COVID-19 crisis raised that relate to social connection and integration?
• Who is at risk of social isolation?
• What barriers and challenges have you encountered in your work to reach and support socially isolated groups? How have you responded to these barriers and solved such problems?
• Is there best practice you would like to share with others working in similar situations? What doesn’t work in these situations?
• What should the Government be doing to support you in your work to reach and support socially isolated groups? What support would be useful from other relevant groups such as councils, the NHS and other civil society bodies?
The first part of the inquiry took place in the first weeks of ‘lockdown’. Civil society organisations and councils were all working very hard to respond to the crisis, making sure that vulnerable people were reached and supported. Many of us were coming to terms with changes in our lives and anxieties about our own families and livelihoods. It was clear that people had little time for reflection and to think about the issues that the COVID-19 crisis raises for policymakers.
This report therefore seeks to collate and share best practice for reaching isolated groups and to discuss the challenges that organisations have faced and the ways in which they have surmounted them. As we move into the recovery and mitigation phases, there will be more space for reflection. It is the APPG’s intention to undertake a further inquiry later this year which will focus on the learning and legacy from the COVID-19 crisis in relation to social connection and integration. In the meantime, it is hoped that this report encourages a conversation about social connection and integration among those responding to the COVID-19 crisis.