As we get closer to Christmas and the end of what has been a tumultuous year my thoughts, along with many others, turn to the year ahead, what we can expect and what we need to prepare for. As a funder, we are thinking through our grant-making priorities for 2021 and I wanted to share some thoughts and invite responses to help shape our thinking.

We have always talked of the need to ‘Respond Better, Recover Stronger’, and the short video we created highlights how fantastic the first-phase response was in Oxfordshire. Against that, we know that many people have been working hard for a long time with little respite, and there are a number of worrying issues that we are facing as we move into 2021. The issues were discussed in a recent meeting of local leaders as part of the ongoing work of OxfordshireAllIn. My summary of the issues is set out below but I would welcome other views and perspectives on this.

All of the impacts we are seeing stem from COVID-19 and the lockdown, but have their roots much deeper in the inequalities and disadvantages inherent in our society. COVID-19 has exerted a huge toll in terms of loss of life and other direct impacts on people’s health. More subtly it has also impacted people’s behaviours as fear of catching the disease has led people to stay at home and withdraw from social, physical and volunteering activities. This withdrawal has impacted people's physical and mental health as well as reducing potential trade and support for a huge range of businesses and charities. Alongside this, the lockdown has also reduced economic activity with the subsequent economic impacts highlighted by our recent report.

The outcome of this is that we are seeing significantly increasing needs in many areas. I have highlighted below the impacts in terms of loneliness and isolation, educational inequality, and broader impacts on young people as well as homelessness and fragility of housing more broadly.

Staying at home more, not seeing other people through work, volunteering and socially has impacted us all. For some people though it is leading to increases in mental health problems and physical deconditioning. Many people followed the guidance to “stay home, save lives” but are now seeing a cost to their own lives. For younger people it may take time to return to health; for some people who are not that old they may struggle to recover the health and independence they had. Many people in their sixties and seventies experienced a lurch from being independent and active to feeling vulnerable and isolated. Initially self-imposed, this has now led to a growing number of people struggling to regain their independence.

Educational inequality, already bad in Oxfordshire, has risen through the lockdown. More affluent children have been able to continue engaging with education online, but lack of equipment, space and internet access means many others cannot engage with online learning, and some schools have decided that providing nothing is, therefore, better than providing learning for some but not all. Linking with the previous point, the teenage years are, for most people, intensely social. While social media can substitute, we are also seeing huge impacts on the mental health of young people, especially girls.

Homelessness has risen a little, with Oxford street counts nudging back up after having dropped almost to zero. Some of this is a return to the streets for a few, but there is also a new wave coming due to the challenges of paying rent or mortgages through the greatest economic downturn of our lives. There is also growing awareness of the issues facing those with no recourse to public funds, who face destitution and homelessness.

Cutting across all of this are other factors such as race or ethnicity. Many Black and minority ethnic groups are seeing higher mortality rates from COVID, and they are also more likely to be in public-facing service jobs that are more at risk from the economic downturn. In Oxfordshire, this is exacerbated by the organisations supporting these communities not having had the funding and support they need in order to develop and grow.

Within all of this, I am tired, almost everyone I speak to is tired. We are nine months into the biggest national crisis of (most of) our lives. Adrenalin and a sense of togetherness got us through the early stages, but we now know that this is going to be carrying on well into 2021, even if the most optimistic vaccination scenarios play out. This fatigue, coupled with the massive uncertainty, is manifesting in increasing anger, hostility and acting out as people’s emotional resources run out. This tiredness was inevitable; we have seen a phenomenal response in Oxfordshire where communities and organisations have worked tirelessly to provide support, comfort and connection through the biggest challenge we have seen as a country for decades. There are so many people who deserve recognition and praise, a huge thank you to everyone who has worked so hard through 2020 to ensure such a phenomenal community response.

What then of our priorities for 2021? Our existing evidence was that loneliness and isolation, educational disadvantage and homelessness were the three biggest challenges. These issues have only been exacerbated by COVID and the lockdown, and our community resources to address them have become frayed. We need continued focus on them, along with programmes to ensure people have the food, information, advice and support they need to get through the winter and cope with job losses, reduced income and other economic impacts. COVID response community groups and longer-standing neighbourhood support groups need to pool resources and collaborate to support people locally for the longer-term. Meanwhile we need to support the vaccine roll-out and keep our fingers crossed that other events (Ed. Don’t mention that word) won’t increase the considerable stresses we are already experiencing.

So, look after yourselves, look after your families and friends and try to spare some time for your local community so we can get into 2021 in as good a shape as possible.