Charities' efforts to combat loneliness hampered by digital exclusion and volunteer shortages

Digital exclusion, volunteer shortages and lack of time to prepare have hampered government backed efforts by charities to tackle isolation and loneliness amid the Covid-19 pandemic, evaluation has found.

The Covid-19 Loneliness Fund was set up to address loneliness and help charities adapt services to support isolated communities amid social restrictions and lockdown. This was awarded to nine charities, including the British Red Cross and Alzheimer’s Society.

The £5m Fund launched in May 2020 and its funding was increased to £7m in December the same year.

The evaluation, covering activities until the end of December 2020, praises the work charities undertook to combat isolation among vulnerable groups.

But it found a number of barriers had hampered the impact of their work.

This found that some beneficiaries struggled to adapt to offering remote, digital support with face-to-face delivery remaining their preferred option.

While digital options supported many people, the evaluation found that “digital exclusion was cited as another barrier by participants, with some service users not being reached as a result”.

It added: “This was mitigated by many organisations, which provided digital devices to service users, although providing instructions on how to use them remotely could be difficult.

There were also “less positive experiences” among service users around “supplied digital equipment included that it did not work or was missing instructions”.

“In addition, services delivered over the phone could sometimes feel rushed or too short,” the evaluation found.

Staffing challenges were mentioned by charities involved in initiatives delivered through the Fund. This included “recruiting enough volunteers to keep up with demand”.

Charities involved reported that the “the quick set up” timing of the initiatives funded through the Fund, “resulted in a lack of lead time to prepare for the project’s initiation”.

Bringing staff back from furlough, recruitment issues, training and the procurement of digital services were among other barriers cited.

The evaluation recommends allowing more time for setting up projects for future funding to tackle loneliness.

Positive experiences

Despite the barriers, the evaluation found that the funded programmes were “experienced in a positive way and were perceived as being user-driven, allowing control and flexibility”.

It also details successful initiatives carried out by charities involved.

This includes Alzheimer’s Society’s “companion calls” for people with dementia, which provided “an opportunity for an informal chat, which aimed to reduce loneliness and provide those who may have been isolated from usual sources of support” amid the pandemic.

Another was the work of the British Red Cross to adapt its services and develop programmes specifically to reach groups including young people, BAME communities, refugees, those facing digital exclusion and beneficiaries with health problems.

Other charities involved include the Carers Trust, Mind, English Football League’s charitable arm the EFL Trust, Home Start, RNIB, Sense and armed forces and veterans’ charity SSAFA.

The most common individual activities were phone befriending(delivered to 28% of service users) and technical support (23%). The less common activities were online befriending (5%) and face-to-face befriending (35).

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