LONDON: The British government has appointed its first ever minister for loneliness, who will help tackle the problem of isolation and loneliness suffered by an estimated 9 million people in the country.
The move follows a cross-party initiative to tackle an issue that was one of the legacies of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was brutally murdered by a far right activist in 2016, and who set up a commission to tackle loneliness shortly before she was killed. Her work was carried on by Conservative MP Seema Kennedy and Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who together chaired a commission on loneliness that reported late last year, and called for “national action.” They recommended putting the issue within the remit of a minister and the need for a UK wide strategy for tackling the issue, alongside greater work at the local government and community level too. Loneliness could be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the report warned.
The issue struck a chord across the political spectrum, at a time of otherwise highly divided politics. “Loneliness is a warning sign that our needs are not being met. Hunger is a sign that we need food, thirst is a sign that we need water and pain signals that our body is sick and needs healing and repair. Experiencing loneliness tells us that there is a gap between our need to connect and the reality of the connectedness that we have at that moment,” said Reeves in a debate in the House of Commons late last year.
The elderly are among the most vulnerable groups, the commission concluded, with over a third of those over 75 reporting that their feelings of loneliness were “out of their control.” Other particularly vulnerable groups included the disabled, 17 to 25 year olds, and migrants and refugees. Three quarter of General Practitioners reported that between 1 and 5 who came to see them every day came mainly as a result of loneliness.
Tracy Crouch, the minister for sport and civil society, will take on cross-government work on the issue and on Wednesday pledged to work with politicians and campaigners across the political spectrum. The government said it had also begun work on a cross-government strategy and had set up a fund to find innovative solutions to loneliness in communities.
The government’s actions were welcomed by the Loneliness Commission, charities and Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox. “Great to see this leadership. Appointing a minister might not sound like much, but in tackling a complex crisis like loneliness that cuts across departments it will provide much needed leadership& accountability.”