The statistics on loneliness in our country are staggering. We’re a relatively small nation of around 66 million people, and yet nine million of us report being always or often lonely. On any given day, half of all disabled people in the UK will battle feelings of loneliness, while 52% of parents report feelings of isolation. For 3.6 million 65-year-olds, a TV is their main source of company.
And despite their glossy Instagram feeds and Facebook pages full of friends, loneliness is an infliction that disproportionately affects millennials. Research has found that 18-24-year-olds are four times more likely than those aged 70 and above to feel lonely all the time, regardless of the constant hum of social media emanating from their phones.
When coupled with the stark reality that loneliness can be as damaging to our overall health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, it’s clear to see that we’re living in a loneliness epidemic – and a solution is long overdue. So it’s positive that the government is finally taking note of the problem by appointing a minister for loneliness, named last night as Tracey Crouch, the current sports and civil society minister.
The creation of the new post, which comes hand-in-hand with a multi-million pound fund to tackle the crisis, is ostensibly a good one. The idea was initially the brainchild of the late Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right extremist in June 2016 while visiting a library in her Yorkshire constituency. Cox was passionate about tackling loneliness and, before her death, was working on a major cross-party commission that would recognise the issue as a national emergency. This vital work was not forgotten and, in the beginning of 2017, the Jo Cox Commission was launched, marking a year-long initiative that aimed to “expose the growing crisis of loneliness and find ways to overcome it”.
The commission recommended the creation of a ministerial post to tackle loneliness as part of its call to action, and it’s heartening that the Tory government has at least listened to their proposal – and taken some solid action to implement their work. Writing on Twitter that “Jo would be over the moon” with the move, her husband, Brendan Cox, praised the decision, adding that “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 and accountability”.
The support didn’t end there, with representatives from the charities that worked closely with the commission weighing in to commend the move. The official British Red Cross Twitter account noted the charity was “pleased” by the move, while Age UK released a statement from its director, Caroline Abrahams, in which she described the initiative as a “big step forward”.
But it is perhaps telling that Abrahams opened her statement with a reminder that “there is clearly a lot more that we can all do to help prevent and tackle loneliness”. After all, we can’t possibly look at this initiative without noticing the huge holes that “austerity” cuts implemented by the Tories themselves have left in structures that helped stave off loneliness in the first place. By 2020, local authorities up and down the country will have been forced to face up to budget cuts of around £30 billion since 2010. This has led to the closure of community centres, playgrounds, youth centres and libraries, to name just a few.
And these public services can be a lifeline for lonely people. When I quit my job amidst a quarter life crisis back in 2012 I spent hours roaming my local library, where librarians would save the weekend newspapers and magazines for me and offer a bit of human contact while all my friends were at work. The experience would have been far lonelier without it, and it’s sickening to think of the increasing numbers of people being denied access to such important services.
One of the awful things about losing Jo is knowing how much difference she would have made in the world. When the kids wake up this morning I’m going to tell them how - even though she’s not here - she’s still making the world a better place. https://t.co/qqe4lSjy5g— Brendan Cox (@MrBrendanCox) January 17, 2018
Of course, this is before we even consider the direction that our mental health services are heading in. A report published last year found 40% of the mental health trusts in England had suffered budget cuts, leaving countless people without a lifeline of vital support – despite the Tory manifesto promising to battle the “injustice” of mental health.
The hypocrisy of the move to create a minister for loneliness therefore wasn’t lost on me, or indeed anyone on Twitter. Within hours of the role being announced the appointment was trending and, while there were plenty of positive comments in the fray, many were quick to point out that we still have a long way to go.
“While the sentiment is of course lovely, I can’t help but find it a bit sick that the Tories have created a Minister for Loneliness after perpetuating individualism for decades while decimating vital community services + letting mental health services collapse under pressure,” wrote political commentator Matt Turner.
“The new Minister For Loneliness is an admirable idea and I hope the PM recognises that one of the greatest factors in social isolation is poverty…and there’s rather a lot the Government could do about that…” added food writer Jack Monroe.
Even the new minister for loneliness herself isn’t immune to it, with Crouch admitting to the BBC that the closure of library and day centres were “all challenges [that] would be looked at”.
But amongst all this, I’m allowing myself to feel hopeful about the appointment. In her new role, Crouch will work closely with the commission, as well as numerous businesses and national charities, to develop a government strategy that aims to minimise loneliness and its impact – and that can only be a good thing. We should welcome this renewed focus on the issue of loneliness and social isolation, and push for the government to make concrete changes that will help minimise the suffering of nine million people in the UK.
After all, the fact that so many people are living with feelings of isolation is simply not good enough, and Jo Cox herself put it perfectly when she said: “I will not live in a country where thousands of people are living lonely lives forgotten by the rest of us”.
Images: Rex Features / iStock