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Pandemic brings nearly five million people to volunteer for first time

05 March 2021

Talk/Together report surveys public’s positive response to the crisis


Volunteers from the Step to Hope charity carry food parcels into the grounds of the Parish Church of St Cuthbert in Edinburgh, last May, to distribute to the community

Volunteers from the Step to Hope charity carry food parcels into the grounds of the Parish Church of St Cuthbert in Edinburgh, last May, to distribute...

NEARLY five million people volunteered for the first time in their lives last year, a wide-ranging report on community spirit in the UK has found.

Of the estimated 12.4 million people who volunteered during the pandemic, 4.6 million people were volunteering for the first time. Of these, 770,000 were aged between 18 and 24 years old; 360,000 had a disability or long-term illness; and 740,000 lived in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods in the UK — all groups of people who were previously less likely to volunteer, it says.

The report, Our Chance to Reconnect, was published on Monday by the Talk/Together project, whose steering group is chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is based on conversations with 160,000 people in the UK at different periods from March 2020 to January 2021. This includes a largely online survey of 78,790 people conducted by Together; five surveys of 10,485 people undertaken by ICM; and information from the further 68,534 people who took part in surveys, online events, and other research activities run by partner organisations.

There were also 41 guided online discussions with 281 members of the public between May 2020 and January, and 26 stakeholder discussions with 218 people from religious and civil-society organisations, local government, businesses, and universities.

The report points to “unifying moments” during the crisis: it estimates that about 27.1 million people watched the Prime Minister address the nation on 23 March 2020, and that by the end of the Clap for Carers campaign in May, 69 per cent of the population had taken part.

Last May, 60 per cent of participants agreed that the “public’s response to the coronavirus crisis has shown the unity of our society more than its divides”, compared with 15 per cent who disagreed. By December, however, fewer people (50 per cent) agreed with this statement; and one quarter (27 per cent) disagreed. Only one third (35 per cent) said that they had been impressed with the general public’s response to Covid-19, compared with the 68 per cent who said that they were impressed with their friends and family.

“Covid-19 has changed the way we see and talk about our society,” the report says. The domination of Brexit in the media in 2019 had damaged confidence in community and togetherness, it continues; but, in 2020, “People found that they were not as deeply divided as they had come to believe. A shared Covid-19 narrative emerged: one that placed more emphasis on the kindness, equal worth of people, community spirit, strong neighbourhood relationships, local unity and what we have in common. This narrative has now been implanted into our collective memory of 2020, although it may evolve or change with time.”

The pandemic had also highlighted and exacerbated existing divisions, however. The report suggests that about 45 per cent of respodents said that “divisions between rich and poor” worried them most; eight per cent of people (13 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds) felt that they had not coped mentally with Covid-19 and lockdown restrictions; 55 per cent felt that social media drove people apart more than together.

While Covid-19 had brought generations closer, as people looked out for their older neighbours, older people were more vulnerable to Covid-19 and more likely to be excluded digitally. While 41 per cent of people felt that the pandemic had made their local community more united, one in eight people (13 per cent) felt that Covid-19 had made their community more divided.

Other concerns raised in the report included disparities according to faith, race, and identity; the north-south divide in England; divisions across the home nations; the loom of Scottish independence; and declining political trust.

There was also hope, however: almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of people said that they wanted society to be more connected in the future, and one third thought that Covid-19 would change how people connected with each other, because they had missed face-to-face interaction. One third were less optimistic, saying that new habits of staying apart would become embedded in long-term behaviour; and one third thought that society would simply go back to the way it was before.

Archbishop Welby writes in his foreword to the report: “Obliged to stay physically apart, it has felt harder to support those close to us. The pandemic has tested the resilience of our communities, deepening some existing divides, and creating new pressures as its impacts have been unevenly experienced.

“Yet this period of forced separation has also prompted a new appreciation of social contact with others — family, friends, neighbours, and those in our wider community. . . Where there has been despair, there has also been hope — and that hope has come from the care we have shown each other, the possibility of stronger, kinder and more loving communities.”

The Together steering group, made up of leaders in faith, culture, sport, and business, had been formed before the pandemic, but the crisis had brought urgency to its campaign, he said. “The Talk/together project reveals a society that has been battered and shaken by recent events and is fearful of divisions to come; but equally one that is heartened by the way in which people and communities have responded. Despite everything, it is a society that feels closer than prior to the pandemic and wants to build on that sense of community in the future.”

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