“All the lonely people” – tackling the epidemic of loneliness

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the UK was already experiencing what had been described as an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness.  The various lockdowns and social restrictions that were put in place to reduce the spread of the virus have exacerbated this already troubling situation.

Indeed, according to recent research by the Mental Health Foundation, 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) have felt lonely some, or all of the time, over the previous month; and 1 in 4 UK adults (25%) felt ashamed about being lonely.

With the huge impact this can have on mental health, it’s no surprise the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week was loneliness.

In its new report, “All the lonely people”, published as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation explores the clear links between loneliness and mental health, looking at what it’s like to be lonely, the causes, consequences and the groups of people who are more likely to experience severe and enduring loneliness.

All the lonely people

Through sharing the stories of nine individuals who often or always feel lonely, “All the lonely people” highlights the circumstances, situations and life events that can increase our risk of loneliness. It also investigates how well people understand loneliness and suggests ways that we can respond as individuals and across society.

While it is acknowledged that anyone can feel lonely, there are a number of risk factors that can increase the chances of severe and lasting loneliness that can impact mental health:

  • Being widowed
  • Being single
  • Being unemployed
  • Living alone
  • Having a long-term health condition or disability
  • Living in rented accommodation
  • Being between 16 and 24 years old
  • Being a carer
  • Being from an ethnic minority community
  • Being LGBTQ+

The health and financial impact of loneliness

Loneliness can have a huge impact on health, life expectancy and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. Moreover, it has also been found to be more harmful than obesity. Not only does this have implications for individuals but also for wider society and the economy.

Recent government research estimated that the wellbeing, health and work productivity cost associated with severe loneliness (feeling lonely “often” or “always”) on individuals was around £9,900 per afflicted person per year. Other research has estimated that loneliness costs UK employers between £2.2 and £3.7 billion a year and that an estimated £1,700 per person (2015 values) could be saved over 10 years if action could be taken to reduce loneliness.

Given the significant health impacts and associated costs, the Mental Health Foundation report argues that preventing the development of loneliness should be a key priority and that a greater awareness of the risk factors and triggers needs to be created.

Public understanding but stigma remains

In terms of public understanding, the report asserts that the public has a good understanding of the link between loneliness and mental health. However, there is still significant stigma surrounding loneliness. Of the adults surveyed, 76% thought ‘people often feel ashamed or embarrassed about feeling lonely’. Only 29% of respondents agreed that ‘people who feel lonely are likely to talk about it, if they get the opportunity’. And people who experience loneliness themselves were more likely to recognise this sense of shame.

This stigma makes it difficult for people to talk about due to fears of discrimination or prejudice. Stereotypes about loneliness also still persist which can lead to some lonely people being overlooked. The findings show that despite the public’s understanding, there is a tendency to overlook certain at risk groups such as students, carers and LGBTQ+ people. People also tend to overestimate the link between loneliness and ageing or living in rural areas.

The survey found that people tended to believe that older people were more likely to feel lonely than younger age groups – 63% thought that being older (over 65) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely, whereas only 12% of respondents identified that being younger (aged 16-25) might contribute to someone feeling more lonely. This contradicts recent ONS data, which found that there were higher rates of reported loneliness among younger age groups.

Similarly, people tended to believe people living in rural areas would be more likely to experience loneliness (40% of people thought that living in a rural area could contribute to loneliness, compared to just 23% for living in a city). However, once again, the evidence suggests the opposite, with people living in urban areas reporting higher levels of loneliness than those in rural areas.

The report notes that stereotypes such as these can inhibit people from recognising and responding to their own loneliness, further exacerbate existing stigma and potentially limit the support offered to those who feel lonely.

Broader awareness

The report argues that a wider understanding of the factors that can lead to severe and enduring loneliness is needed to successfully combat the stigma and stereotypes associated with loneliness.

The stories of the individuals who experience loneliness demonstrate just how complex it is and how difficult it is to spot those who may be ‘lonely in a crowd’. It is therefore also important to understand the different barriers to connection for different people. These can be practical (lack of time, access to transport), structural (discrimination or prejudice) or emotional (lack of confidence, anxiety).

The report argues that a broader awareness of these factors could help people to stop blaming themselves for being lonely, encourage creative ways of supporting people and enable tailored support being developed for groups who are particularly at risk of long-term loneliness.

Previous research has also highlighted the importance of tailored approaches and developing approaches that avoid stigma.

Tackling loneliness

While highlighting what individuals can do to help combat loneliness, the Mental Health Foundation also highlights the need for action on the different barriers to connection if it is be tackled long-term. To this end, it has identified five UK-wide policy recommendations to address loneliness in society:

  • taking a strategic approach to loneliness;
  • developing the community resources needed to tackle loneliness;
  • building a greener lived environment that supports social contact;
  • supporting children and young people with interventions in education settings;
  • ensuring that everyone has access to digital communication technology, and the skills to use it, and respecting preferences for non-digital forms of communication.

Each of us can play a part too. By sharing stories of loneliness and shining a spotlight on the issue, we can all help to promote wider awareness and break the stigma of loneliness.


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Digesting diet and health: the challenges of eating well

Diet-related health problems are rarely out of the news. That’s because so many illnesses and diseases are the result of poor diet. There’s no shortage of suggestions for improving our diet, and for educating all of us on the benefits of eating well.

Policymakers are also concerned about this issue. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has been under greater pressure than ever, and government has been keen to address diet-related health problems.  

Examples of this include the most recent legislation to add calorie labelling to  restaurants and takeaways, which has been controversial. The new rules for England make it a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to display calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks.  The Scottish Government is consulting on similar proposals.

Sugar and salt taxes

Another example of regulations directed towards diet-related health problems would be taxes on sugar and salt in foods. There have been suggestions to either tax all foods based on their salt content, or specific foods which are classed as “high” in salt.

A sugar tax – the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – was introduced in April 2018 by the UK Government. It was later reported that consumers had bought 10% less sugar through soft drinks, which will also have lowered risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2021, looked at the impacts a tax on added sugar and salt could have on purchases of food both at home and out of the home in the UK. The report found that a salt tax could potentially see a decrease in risks of coronary heart disease and strokes.

In addition, the study suggested a salt tax could reduce the number of NHS treatments for obesity-related conditions, resulting in  lower NHS costs. The report also indicated an increase in overall economic output due to a healthier workforce.

However, there may also be less welcome consequences. A ‘snack tax’ has been estimated to potentially add as much as £3.4billion a year to families’ shopping bills. Introducing such a tax during the current cost of living crisis would add greatly to the financial stresses being experienced by households across the country.

Counting the calories

Displaying the number of calories in meals on menus has long been proposed as a way to tackle obesity and health issues, as so many people are unaware of just what is in the food they order. Public opinion is extremely divided on this subject, with some being in favour of this extra measure to help them when eating out if they wish to make healthier choices.

However, adding calorie information to menus may have undesirable effects. 1.25 million people in the United Kingdom have an eating disorder, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have increased this number as more people struggle with mental illness and increased stress.

Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity, has highlighted  that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds. In addition, pushing a “diet culture” could send the wrong messages about eating rather than embracing a more positive approach towards food.

A further  study by the British Medical Journal reported only a small decrease in calories purchased when trialling calorie labelling in three chain restaurants in the United States. The researchers also found that after one year, that reduction diminished.

Meeting in the middle?

Another suggestion that has been discussed is tackling health-related inequalities, and understanding why certain groups are more vulnerable to these issues than others. For example, the House of Commons library has reported that in England people living in the most deprived areas were 9% more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the least deprived areas. The briefing also reported that  children in the most deprived areas of England were twice as likely to be obese.. More education focusing on not only what is healthy food, but how to be healthy with fewer resources could help reduce such inequalities.

Final thoughts

From tooth decay and high blood pressure to cancer, eating disorders and mental ill health, there are significant health and wellbeing impacts resulting from unhealthy eating habits. These issues also have serious consequences for healthcare services.

As we’ve seen, legislation has already been introduced to tackle diet-related health problems. But it’s likely that government will have to consider further measures to ensure that the food that we eat is both good for individuals and for wider society.

Further reading: more on food and nutrition from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Young carers: sacrifice and support

While there has been a lot of conversation about the vulnerable over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, there has not much attention given to the people who care for them, particularly the young people who do so. Young carers carry a lot on their shoulders, and this has only been increased with the impact of the pandemic affecting those they love. However, we also need to look out for these young people and give them the support they deserve.

Issues faced by young carers

Young carers are faced with many challenges due to their position and this can depend on the carers, their age, the level of care they give and who they care for. A report on siblings of disabled children from the UK charity Sibs found that the particular young carers they engaged with tended to not get as much attention and support from their parents because of their sibling needing more urgent care. Even something as simple as going out to play centres or restaurants must be adapted to fit the disabled sibling, with the carer sibling rarely getting their own choice.

Young carers have also been found to be at more risk of mental health problems than others, particularly if the person they are caring for is a parent with a mental illness or a history of substance misuse.  A study from Scotland found that young carers, much like adult unpaid carers, were more likely to have physical health issues such as tiredness, backache and bad diets in addition to reporting worry, stress, anxiety, depression and resentment. They were also found to have significantly lower self-esteem and feelings of happiness than non-carers.

Impact of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted young carers greatly. Sibs reported that a lot of parents felt their carer children were extremely worried about contracting the virus and giving it to their sibling, or bringing it into the household if their family were shielding or vulnerable. Others also reported their child withdrawing from friends, either because of shielding or simply because they were uncomfortable socialising outside of their household. Sibs also noted cases where siblings would become the object of their disabled sibling’s anger or frustration.

In addition, a lot of activities and support groups normally put into place for these specific carers, in order to give them attention and opportunities to enjoy life outside of their role as a young carer, were cancelled due to COVID-19, and left many young carers at home, where they were often ignored if their sibling or parent needed additional support.

Other young carers have had to take on a range of duties, including shopping for their families or taking care of their home or other siblings. A lot of these young people have had to balance this with continuing their education from home and dealing with having their lives outside of the home cut off due to social distancing and isolation. This is on top of the general struggles of growing up as a child and adolescent. Izzy, a 12-year-old interviewed by a study from the Centre for Research on Children and Families, said she felt her entire life was “being a mini adult, but it’s not a pick and choose the time sort of thing.” 

Support

There have been a range of support services for young carers across the United Kingdom. Young carers groups have been found to be a great resource to help find other young carers and share some of the issues that affect them with people who understand. These groups  are also important as an outlet outside of their role in the family home, providing support  solely for  young carers. Even during the pandemic, some groups were able to schedule calls for young carers which provided them with interaction just for them, and something to look forward to each week at home.

However, many young carers remain “hidden” from services, either out of choice or because they have been ignored. Some simply don’t know about support groups or services, or have been found to not consider themselves ‘carers’. Instead, they  view their lives as “normal” or doing something that’s “expected” of them. Others may be afraid of the stigma their particular situation may bring them, and therefore want to be perceived as the same as their fellow students.

Final thoughts

The pandemic has pushed conversation and debate towards how we care for the most vulnerable in our society, and hopefully will lead to improvements in our attitudes towards care. However, this also has to extend towards unpaid carers, and particularly the young people who often shoulder invisible labour at the expense of their childhood.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on carers

Health inequalities and ethnic minority communities: breaking down the barriers

Almost from the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, its unequal impact on ethnic minorities has been clear. But the health inequalities experienced by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities predate the pandemic. As the Local Government Association has observed:

“…the truth is these inequalities were already having an impact on the health and wellbeing of ethnic minority communities before COVID-19 hit – it is just that the pandemic has shone a light on them like nothing before.”

Recently, the Centre for Ageing Better hosted a webinar titled “Ethnic health inequalities in later life,” based on the report of the same name, published in November 2021.

The report mainly looked at the period from 1993 to 2017, although the webinar was able to offer more recent information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course greatly affected health inequalities.

Widening inequalities

Dr. Sarah Stopforth, one of the researchers for this study, explained that  ethnic inequalities have been found to widen more after the age of 30, and by the age of 40 have established themselves. One of the study’s main findings was that poor health for White British women in their 80s was the equivalent to the poor health of African and Caribbean women in their 70s, and the equivalent to Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in their 50s.

While there were similar results for men from these same ethnic groups, it is clear that women across all ethnicities have poorer health than their male counterparts. Why is this happening?

The reasons are complex, but Sara suggested that  health inequalities are usually tied to the socio-economic inequalities present in our society. However, she also said that this tends to ignore the underlying causes of these health outcomes.

The role of the NHS

Dr. Habib Naqvi from NHS England talked about the role of the NHS in tackling health inequalities. He asserted that our healthcare system should be well equipped to respond to these inequalities, given the UK’s long history of migration by people from Afro-Caribbean communities. So why has it not been able to?

A lot of this, he explained, was due to the fragmentation of the NHS. The many areas of the sector are not working co-operatively to reach a collective and consistent goal, which then affects the ability to tackle issues such as inequalities in the sector.

In addition, Dr Naqvi pointed to mortality rates for ethnic minority groups – living longer does not always mean living in a healthy way. One of the features of “long Covid,” is its tendency to exacerbate long-standing health complications or to weaken COVID-19 patients’ health even after the illness. Again, ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected by this condition.

Another impact of  the COVID-19 pandemic has been a heightened feeling of isolation and fear for many ethnic minority groups, something highlighted in a report from the University of Manchester. Many were unable to communicate with healthcare staff due to language barriers or health conditions affecting their communication skills, and were often having to be admitted alone due to Covid restrictions. The inability of patients from ethnic minority backgrounds  speak for themselves raises concerns about their healthcare. Research has found evidence that ethnic minority patients – especially women – are not having their illnesses taken seriously.  

Vaccine hesitancy

Linked to this is the controversial issue of vaccine hesitancy, which has become a particular concern among ethnic minority groups. One of the reasons that many members of ethnic minorities may feel hesitant or scared to take the vaccination is because of the lack of communication and information, linked with their previous healthcare experiences.

It was suggested during the webinar that even throughout the pandemic, the healthcare sector has not effectively protected ethnic minorities, despite these health inequalities long being known.  Health professionals have attempted to reach out to communities and help them with any fears regarding COVID-19 or the vaccination process, but this can be difficult with social distancing restrictions. As a result, people within BAME communities may have to rely on family and friends to get information regarding vaccination, which may not calm their fears.

Data, care and trust

One of the key points driven home by Dr. Naqvi was the need for better data in order to better understand health inequalities among ethnic minority communities. Birth to end-of-life care was also mentioned, including tackling racial bias that can be found even in antenatal care. Finally, the concept of earning trust was highlighted. Dr. Naqvi said that the NHS must work to earn trust from BAME communities, particularly among the elderly, given the long-standing disparities in treatment and discrimination many have faced over the years.

Final thoughts

The webinar offered useful insights into how deeply healthcare inequalities lie. Our previous blog post on the future of public health offered a reminder that access to efficient, well-supported and high quality healthcare is vital for everyone. This webinar underlined that message, but highlighted its special significance for those experiencing longstanding health inequalities.

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash


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Geographical Information Systems: mapping our ever-changing world

Location data in today’s economy is as important as coal and iron were during the industrial revolution. Using location data – information about the location and movement of people collected from mobile and wearable devices – the essential relationships between geography and consumer experiences, products and services can be identified. This can open up many new business opportunities.

So it’s not surprising that geographical information systems (GIS) – the technology that helps visualise and interrogate location data is experiencing rapid growth. It’s estimated that the UK market for location information products and services is over £2,000 million, while the global market size for GIS is expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2030. Recognising this trend, Idox (the parent company of The Knowledge Exchange) recently acquired two GIS businesses: thinkWhere and exeGesIS Spatial Data Management Ltd.

The power of GIS

As the name suggests, geography is at the heart of GIS. From variations in our landscape to changes in our climate, covering areas of life as varied as crime, health and pollution, GIS can help visualise trends that affect all of us. GIS can also help us to adapt to our ever-changing world. For example, GIS maps that display which areas are prone to flooding can be invaluable when planning new housing developments.

Some of the factors driving the increasing application of GIS include its use in urban planning, disaster management, transport management and the development of smart cities. The coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated the rapid growth of GIS. Governments around the world have adopted the technology to map the spread of the disease and evaluate measures to limit its advance.

GIS in action

Idox’s two new acquisitions have considerable experience of real-world GIS applications.

Working with land and property information firm Millar & Bryce, thinkWhere developed a customised version of its flagship groundMapper platform. The solution enabled Millar & Bryce to bundle all documentation pertinent to a project and publish it to a web viewer, reducing a one week process to 48 hours. Because they can make more informed decisions faster, Millar & Bryce have now made groundMapper the centerpiece of its new Site Assembly Solutions service, giving the company a distinctive selling point in a competitive market for land referencing.

thinkWhere has also applied its expertise to help Bucchleuch Estates easily capture, maintain and communicate their land and property assets and associated information such as documents, photos, drawings and reports. And when constructing a new bypass around the city of Aberdeen, Balfour Beatty was significantly helped by thinkWhere, which provided universal access to mapping and environmental data for all stakeholders — not just on the construction side, but also in legal firms, the government and transport authorities.

Similarly, exeGesIS has developed a strong reputation for its range of GIS focused software products, particularly in the field of environmental data.  Among its success stories, exeGesIS has built a web platform for the National Street Gazetteer, which provides essential information for local government, highway authorities and contractors on more than a million streets in England and Wales. The company has also developed a GIS to help local authorities in Scotland monitor litter and fly-tipping incidents, and worked with JNCC – which advises government on nature conservation – to create a new mapping system to display marine spatial data. In addition, exeGesIS  has worked with numerous local authorities, universities and charities to help them visualise and interrogate important information in interactive and imaginative ways.

Dynamic data for an ever-changing world

By uncovering patterns and relationships, GIS is providing organisations in almost every field of activity with the support to gain deeper insight into data, solve complex problems and make smarter decisions. Both thinkwhere and exeGesIS will continue helping to explain how our world works, and identifying ways to make it work better.

Image: thinkwhere


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More than growing pains: young people and mental health

woman sleeping on brown armchair

The last few decades have seen increasing rates of mental health disorders among children and young people. But while children and young people’s mental health is currently high on the public agenda, many of these mental health conditions remain unrecognised and untreated.

The NHS conducted a Mental Health Survey for Children and Young People in 2017, interviewing 3,667 children and young people, which was followed up in 2021. The follow-up survey found that 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds had experienced a decrease in their mental health since 2017, while approximately 52% of 17 to 23 year olds also reported a decrease. Within these last four years, a number of factors appear to have impacted these figures, including the continued rise and prominence of social media platforms, family life, and, of course, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Impact of the pandemic

The beginning of the pandemic marked the closure of all schools, colleges and universities. Not only were young people faced with the anxiety and stress associated with living through a global pandemic, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, but these closures also cut off access to resources for mental health problems. A survey by YoungMinds in January 2021 found that among over 2000 participants who were under the age of 25 in the UK with a history of mental illness, 75% agreed that they were finding the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones, and 67% believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

Peer support groups and face to face services such as counselling that could be accessed through school were closed, or made accessible through the internet or over the phone. While this does offer some kind of continued support, it is not a form of support that works for everyone and many young people were left feeling unsupported. The YoungMinds report emphasised that any future provision must recognise the value of face to face interaction alongside virtual and digital forms of support.

Alongside issues with access to support, school closures  also disrupted routines, which for many people of all ages with mental health problems can be particularly important as a coping mechanism. It has been suggested that being unable to attend school or university in person, or part-time jobs, can lead to a relapse in symptoms where young people relied on these routines. Refusing to undertake typical daily activities such as showering, getting out of bed and eating sufficient meals are some of the effects seen amongst these young people – all which can exacerbate feelings of depression or loneliness.

Role of families

Families have been found to play a vital part in helping young people who are suffering from mental health issues. This has only become more apparent with the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, where young people would most likely be living with their family – whether that be parents, siblings or other relatives or caregivers. Lockdown guidelines that mandated staying at home would leave these young people spending more time with their families, and the closure of other services outwith the home, meant these young people’s households often became their main support system. The NHS follow-up survey found that both family connectedness and family functioning were associated with mental disorder, highlighting the importance of supporting families to enable them to support young people’s mental health.

The Local Government Association has recently published a guide on a “whole household approach” to young people’s mental health, stressing the importance of educating families on how to support their young people. This is highlighted as particularly important when they transition from child services to adult services as many teenagers and young people struggle with the lack of support offered when they are legally considered adults.

Social media

Another big issue affecting young people’s mental health is the use of social media. While there are many reported benefits of social media, particularly in relation to connecting with others, there are also growing concerns about its effects on wellbeing and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this. The NHS survey found that, in 2021, half (50.7%) of 11-16 year olds agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and 16.7% using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Those with a probable mental disorder were particularly likely to spend more time on social media than they intended, and girls seem to be more affected that boys.

The survey found that 21.1% of girls reported that likes, comments and shares from social media affected their mood, compared to 12.1% of boys. It also found that double the number of girls than boys spent more time on social media than they meant to. Other research has also highlighted the disproportionate impact on young girls. One study found that constant social media use predicted lower wellbeing in girls only and that these mental health harms may be due to a combination of cyberbullying, and a lack of sleep or exercise. This was not found in the teenage boys interviewed.

Solutions

When addressing mental health problems, it is clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. As highlighted in the research, mental health problems can present themselves in a range of ways, and depend on a number of variables.  People from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, or those with additional needs, often face more stigma and can find it more difficult to express their problems or access the correct support for their specific needs.

There have been suggestions for more targeted support for young people and the issues they may be facing, including more investment in schools and social services. Particularly for adolescents who are transitioning to adulthood, it is important to provide continuous support. As highlighted in the NHS Mental Health Survey, more adolescents and young adults (17 to 23 year olds) mentioned a decrease in their mental health than younger people (6 to 16 year olds). Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) notes that the transition from child to adult mental health services tends to begin around three to six months before the individual turns 18, although there can be flexibility.  Perhaps even greater flexibility is required, particularly as we assess the damage left by the pandemic. It is argued that engaging adolescents in the provision of mental health services and a shift towards early intervention and prevention will also be important as we look to build new solutions.


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Looking back and beyond: The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021

brown sand near body of water during daytime

If 2020 was the year of the coronavirus, then 2021 was surely the year of the ‘coronacoaster’. From the highs of vaccine rollouts and loosening of social restrictions to the lows of fluctuating case numbers and a worrying new virus variation, we’ve all become unwilling passengers on what feels like an endless un-funfair ride.

But while the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts, it hasn’t taken over complete control of our lives. Research, evidence gathering, conferences and partnerships have continued in fields as diverse as education and housing, culture and the environment.  Which is why, this year’s reflection on The Knowledge Exchange blog in 2021 focuses on some of the issues that we covered which looked beyond the pandemic.

Saving the planet

Until the emergence of Covid-19, many regarded climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity. That threat hasn’t gone away. Last summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the current state of the climate crisis, setting out the already devastating effects of climate change and warning of the deadly impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter.

Throughout this year, our blog has focused on this issue, highlighting the dangers posed by climate change and the efforts to tackle the problem. In April, we looked at the monumental challenge of decarbonising the UK’s ageing housing stock, and highlighted a survey showing that two-thirds of housing associations have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer.

“However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.”

We returned to the issue this month, with an overview of plans by government and industry to make the transition from gas boilers to greener ways of heating our homes.

In November, the landmark COP26 climate conference took place in Glasgow, and while the major talking points included protection of the world’s forests and reducing dependency on fossil fuels, our blog focused on how important the circular economy is to tackling global warming:

“…if we were able to double the current 8.6% global circularity figure to achieve 17% circularity, that move alone would achieve the targets on global warming set out by the Paris COP meeting in 2015.”

The cultural imperative

From community murals to television drama, from open-air concerts to singers entertaining neighbours from their balconies, culture and the arts have played a vital role in diverting us from the grim news of the past two years. And although the arts have taken a severe hit during lockdowns, artists across the globe have continued to create and share their work.

In January, we highlighted some of the ways in which creative people have found new ways to express themselves and to support the wellbeing of others:

“Organisations and individuals have been doing a variety of work to reach those most in need such as projects creating new programmes or adapting existing work to reach people who are shielding or vulnerable in their homes, overwhelmingly addressing loneliness and isolation. One participant described their experience: “I found the process of drawing and painting both cathartic and healing at the most difficult time of my life.”

In April, our blog reported on efforts by cultural communities to break down some of the barriers to digital engagement. It’s estimated that seven million people in the UK don’t’ have digital access, while 11.7 million don’t have the digital skills needed to engage online. In an increasingly ‘digital by default’ society, those numbers are troubling.

Our blog post described some of the ways in which arts and cultural organisations are tackling digital exclusion:

“One project managed by Birmingham Museums involved taking digital kit out to care homes for digital arts sessions. This was not only great for wellbeing; it also showed how digital technologies can be adapted to connect with people within communities.”

Levelling up and the foundational economy

The economy is another recurring theme that we’ve highlighted in our blog. The UK is one of the most geographically unequal countries in the developed world. It ranks near the top of the league table on most measures of regional economic inequality. Fixing this is a priority for a government elected in 2019 on a pledge to address inequalities in former industrial regions, and in coastal and isolated rural areas.

In May we reported from a webinar looking at the scope for charities to get involved. On the face of it, the fact that much of the focus is on capital spending could be challenging for charities whose work involves tackling problems such as addiction or homelessness. However, our blog explained that charities shouldn’t write off their chances of obtaining levelling up funding:

“… a lot of the language used in the funding documents is ambiguous – there are repeated  references to ‘community’ and ‘community assets’ without making clear what they mean. This ambiguity could work in charities’ favour. At the same time, many charities work under the banners of skills, employment, heritage and culture. It’s up to charities, therefore, to identify elements in the funding that match what they can offer.”

In February, we shone a light on the foundational economy, which provides some of the essential services of everyday life, such as food, retailing and distribution, education, health and welfare. While these services are vital, many of the workers providing them are among the lowest paid in society.  Our blog looked at the potential value of the foundational economy for the post-pandemic recovery:

“It has been widely agreed that a return to a business-as-usual approach following the pandemic is not the way forward, and that there needs to be a shift in economic policies in order to achieve a more socially and economically just society. Perhaps if such policy change is achieved, a more balanced economy that provides a good quality of life for all can eventually be realised.”

The issues of our times

From town centres to smart cities, from Scotland’s burgeoning space sector to Britain’s hard-pressed food system, throughout the year we’ve been raising awareness of important issues that concern or impact on public policy and practice.

But we haven’t ignored the ongoing public health emergency. In November, we reported from a webinar on some of the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health; in July we looked at the important work of health librarians during the pandemic; and in May our blog reported on the role of behavioural insights, data analytics and “nudge” techniques in public health, and in particular during the vaccine roll-outs.

Final thoughts

As we stand on the threshold of 2022, things look uncertain. But, as our blog posts have demonstrated throughout the past year, despite the anxieties and restrictions generated by the pandemic, great work can still be achieved by the public and private sectors, by charities, communities and individuals, for the benefit of society and the wider world.

All of us in The Knowledge Exchange team – Morwen, Donna, Heather, James, Rebecca, Hannah, Euan and Hollie –  would like to wish all our readers a safe and peaceful festive season, and very happy new year.

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The future of public health: lessons from the pandemic

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The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has impacted all sectors of our society, but none more-so than public health services.

Last month, The Health Foundation hosted a webinar discussing the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health. The webinar drew on the findings from The Kings Fund report “Directors of public health and the COVID-19 pandemic”.  It considered the issues facing public health as a result of COVID-19, and proposed steps to rebuild the healthcare sector and begin tackling the problems left as we slowly move out of the pandemic.

Lack of resources

One of the main themes of the webinar was raised by Shilpa Ross of The Kings Fund, who explained that a lack of resources and shortages in public health existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of longer term reductions to the public health grant meant that health services were not ready for the pandemic, nor for how long it has lasted. This has had a knock-on effect elsewhere in the NHS. A Care Quality Commission report noted that in July 2021, almost 300,000 people were waiting more than 52 weeks to begin hospital treatment.

On top of this, public health has faced staff shortages. Because so many healthcare services are “fishing in the same pond for recruits,” Shilpa explained that it has been especially hard to fill vacancies. In addition, many healthcare workers have experienced short and long-term effects of the virus, and the additional workloads have left many stressed and burnt out. The disruption to education could further delay the training and employment of potential new healthcare workers.

While the NHS has in some cases set up drop-in sessions for support and made efforts to provide even basic support, such as bottled water to aid hydration, these cannot fill the hole created by healthcare staff shortages.

Widening inequalities

Professor Kevin Fenton of Public Health England argued that “inequalities have defined the pandemic,” and would be the legacy of the last year and a half. A 2020 report by the Institute of Health Equity, commissioned by The Health Foundation, found that in England members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME) were more likely to be affected by COVID-19. The report attributed this partly to people in these groups living in more deprived areas, working in occupations with a higher exposure risk to the virus (such as healthcare or customer service roles), and in some cases living with multiple generations in their home (complicating self-isolation). The authors contended that while inequalities in social and economic conditions were present before the pandemic, they contributed to the unequal death toll resulting from COVID-19.

These inequalities have widened, partly due to the shortage of resources and staff. It has only grown more difficult to address the ever increasing numbers of people needing treatment, both urgent and non-urgent. As a result, the most vulnerable in society have fallen by the wayside.

Changing how public health works

The webinar also discussed how public health can move forward as the country slowly returns to a new form of normal. In addition to the restructuring of Public Health England, a new tax – the Health and Social Care Levy – will put an additional £12 billion into health and social care over the next three years. However, money alone is not enough – the webinar participants agreed that the infrastructures and inner workings of public health must evolve as we move towards a more efficient system of working.

Professor Fenton stressed the importance of engaging with local communities, and that the response towards the pandemic going forward must be grounded in their experiences, and what they need from both the public health system and also local authorities. He noted that while there may be pressure to go back to the way things operated before the pandemic, we must move forward: by understanding what worked and what didn’t, progress and better services can be achieved. Shilpa Ross added that a more targeted and tailored approach to health inequalities has provided more significant results in terms of vaccination and testing rates. This has in turn raised levels of trust within communities that public health teams may not have engaged with before the pandemic. All of this, however, takes up precious time.

Professor Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire County Council, highlighted the importance of prevention not only for COVID-19 moving forward but other health conditions.  He stated that they must be tackled at a place where they can stop others continuing to be affected, in addition to treating those who are currently being affected.  Robin Tuddenham, Accountable Officer for NHS Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group, agreed, and stressed that problems like homelessness and poverty should not be seen as separate from health but rather as important factors in the prevention of ill health.

Concluding thoughts

Highlighting the underlying issues and difficulties affecting public health before the pandemic is one step towards addressing them.

The webinar demonstrated that the pandemic has shifted how public health is perceived and valued. It has reminded all of us how important access to efficient, well-supported and high quality healthcare really is. Those working in decision-making roles in the healthcare sector are clearly looking towards the next steps for public health and how to give people the highest quality and most efficient care possible. With this in mind, the pandemic may have created a stepping stone towards a better healthcare system.


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Rescheduled, delayed, cancelled: the knock on impact of the pandemic on routine health care

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Recently published figures show that waiting times for some non-urgent care across the UK have risen dramatically with the pandemic squeezing the already stretched resources of the NHS. Figures from Public Health Scotland, published in June 2021 found that when comparing to pre-pandemic levels, the waiting list size is 30.3% higher than the 12-month average prior to the onset of the pandemic (Mar 19 – Feb 20), while in England figures published in August 2021 showed NHS waiting lists in England reached a “record” 5.45 million people.

In addition to strains on acute NHS care services on the frontline, there are warnings about the additional public health impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures like screening and routine medical care as well as concerns about a surge in demand when people who have delayed seeking non-urgent diagnosis and treatment return to hospitals.

At the outbreak of the pandemic many hospitals took the decision to delay or stop entirely routine pre-planned surgeries and preventative screening and diagnostics. Some even suspended treatment for more urgent care like cancer treatment on a short-term basis. While many of these services have resumed since the beginning of the pandemic, albeit with a backlog of patients now to be seen, significant strain on the NHS as we come into the winter months because of coronavirus is still anticipated.

In many areas this has led to a backlog of care, both for those patients already in the system awaiting routine surgeries, as well as those who are yet to be diagnosed but would have been through preventative screening programmes run by the NHS.

Delays in healthcare and routine screening

Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, many NHS hospital trusts were under criticism because of the significant length of waiting times for people who required routine operations. Doctors across the UK are now warning that these delays could be increased further unless the NHS receives additional support to increase capacity across all areas of care not just urgent care in the coming months.

It has been suggested that delays in diagnosis and routine treatments could lead to an increased number of hospitalisations further down the line, requiring higher levels of care, longer lengths of stay, and increased hospital readmissions.

And despite the recent announcement of a new arrangement for health and care funding, commentators are quick to stress that the £1.4bn the new funding programme is expected to generate may not be enough to suitable address all of the concerns across health and social care, which they highlight has been chronically underfunded for a significant number of years, even before the pandemic exposed the frailty of parts of the system.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

Research from the Health Foundation found that there had been a significant reduction in the number of GP consultations since the start of the pandemic which has led to concerns about the care of non-covid patients, patients with long term health conditions and also the potential for delayed diagnosis. Primary care consultations also reduced and have remained low consistently since the beginning of lockdown.

Figures have also shown a reduction in the number of referrals, medical tests, new prescriptions and immunisations. While some of these reductions are the result of advice to delay routine referrals to free up capacity for hospitals to deal with the potentially large number of cases of Covid-19, routine referrals have still not recovered to pre-lockdown levels.

These figures, and other contributions from commentators and researchers suggest that government messages to ‘protect the NHS’ may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging people from seeking urgent medical care when it was required for fear of using services unnecessarily or for fear of contracting the virus when attending hospital or primary care settings.

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A potential future crisis for the NHS

Commentators are now warning that the treatment backlog which has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to diagnostic delays and screening programmes, may lead to a future crisis of care or significant delays in care for people waiting to receive more routine treatment.

Delays in care have not only been reported in cases of physical health. There have also been significant delays in referrals for those seeking treatment for a mental health condition, an area of the NHS which was already facing significant delays in referral and transfer of care even before the pandemic. Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this. People with mental health conditions may have been unable to access appropriate support through primary care pathways, which could potentially impact on their long-term health and care.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the wider social determinants of health such as employment and poverty. Public Health England (PHE) published a monitoring tool which looks at the wider impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on population health, and it is likely that the knock-on impact of the virus could have far reaching consequences for public health in the future as the health implications of lockdown, lack of social interaction and rising unemployment could be significant. 

Where next?

While the NHS delivered some elective treatment during the course of the pandemic, the pressure of caring for large numbers of patients, many of whom were seriously unwell with COVID-19 has led to longer delays for the growing number of patients on waiting lists. Figures also show that access to elective treatment fell further in the most deprived areas of England during 2020. Tackling the backlog, and working towards the “levelling up” agenda to reduce health inequalities, both of which have been significantly exacerbated by the pandemic will be a key component of the work in health and social care over the coming months and years.


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Food for thought: how the UK food strategy is trying to revolutionise the way we think about and access food

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Research has shown that healthy food choices are three times more expensive than unhealthy ones, food bank use is at it highest ever level and the NHS is anticipating significant struggles in long term treatment of people with conditions linked to obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

A forecast published in a report by the Food Foundation showed that if we continue at our current rate and type of food consumption 22% of children born in 2020 will be overweight or obese by age 5, rising to 46% by the time they reach age 21.

But the impact doesn’t stop there. The food system – agriculture, food production, distribution and retail combined – releases more greenhouse gases than any other sector apart from energy. In the UK, the food system accounts for a fifth of domestic emissions – but that figure rises to around 30% if we factor in the emissions produced by all the food we import.

The food we eat – and the way we produce it – is doing damage to both the environment and our health and the government is now trying to take steps to mitigate the damage, and improve our health and wellbeing in the process through the roll out of a national food strategy.

Fixing a broken system

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that between April 2020 and March 2021, a record 2.5 million emergency food parcels were given to people in crisis. The increasing use of foodbanks shows just how deeply entwined inequality, food and health are, and how important it is for a robust and equitable food strategy to be rolled out.

The Broken Plate 2021 report from the Food foundation provides an overview of the food system in the UK, looking across four main themes:

  • making healthier options more appealing;
  • making healthier options more affordable;
  • making healthier and more sustainable options more available; and
  • addressing inequalities in food so that everyone can have the chance to live longer, healthier lives.

In July 2021 the UK government published a review into how the food system in the UK works and the interventions that could be brought in to prevent the harms from what we eat and the way we eat. The plan sets out recommendations and a strategy for the future which focuses on food being equitable, accessible, healthier, and sustainable.

The recommendations cover a number of key themes:

  • escape the “junk food cycle”, including introducing a Salt and Sugar Reformulation Tax;
  • reduce diet-related inequality, including extending eligibility for free school meals;
  • make the best use of our land – including guaranteeing agricultural payments to help farmers transition to more sustainable land use; and
  • create a long term shift in food culture, including the development of a robust system of data collection and reporting to help monitor long term progress.

Inequality exacerbated by unequal access to food

One of the most pressing issues around food is its availability and its ability to exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly among disadvantaged groups. We have already seen that food bank use is high (disproportionately so among lower income groups) and that eating healthier food is more expensive than unhealthy food.

The shelf life of more unhealthy and highly processed food is also often longer, so it is easier to store, and food can be spread out and eaten across multiple days more easily. Processed foods, which are often higher in sugar, salt and trans fats (unhealthy fats) also often require less cooking (both in terms of heat energy required to cook them and knowledge of how to prepare them) which for people with reduced access to kitchens, experience of fuel poverty or limited knowledge of preparing food can be more convenient. Research consistently shows that people who fall into these groups are significantly more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and have experience of poverty.

Steps are being taken to try and improve access to healthier food for people living on lower incomes, including free school meals and (with a bit of persuasion from Marcus Rashford) a wider roll out to also offer meals during school holidays. The government also runs a voucher system for new parents to help them get access to fresh food like fruit and vegetables.

More recently there has also been discussion about the roll out of “food on prescription” services, both for those people on lower incomes and for those people who are at risk of medical complications or disease as a result of being overweight or obese.

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Sustainable as well as healthy

As has been made clear in the reports, food systems don’t just impact on us as individuals, they also have a significant impact on the environment. The changing climate is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, including multiple extreme weather events, the publication of an IPCC report on climate change, and the run up to COP26, due to be held in Glasgow. So the way we grow and process our food, and how this negatively impacts our environment is coming under greater scrutiny.

Currently, many practices are having a negative and detrimental impact on our environment across a number of areas including carbon emissions, water pollution, reduction in soil health, loss of biodiversity, land use/deforestation.

And commentators are now emphasising that our food system as well as being healthy and accessible should also be sustainable, with programmes developed to reduce food waste, support community-based agriculture schemes, help farmers to transition to more sustainable ways to farm and use land and stimulate demand for in season, sustainably grown, locally sourced food.

Final Thoughts

Food, and our relationship with it is becoming increasingly important, not only for our own personal health and wellbeing, but also for the health of communities more generally, and the health of our planet.

Sustainable, healthy and equitable food systems help to promote healthier choices and reduce our impact on the planet. And food can also play its part in helping to relieve other pressures on society, like food poverty, inequality and the rising use of food banks. Food on prescription services can help support people to make better choices and reduce the risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity.

In short, food is not just vital for life, but also for living well.


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