Seema Kennedy MP: Jo Cox Commission shows that tackling loneliness is a generational challenge
NHS England said this week that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by a third, highlights Seema Kennedy, Co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
Convention dictates that the Prime Minister’s PPS is rarely seen and even less often heard. But I’m delighted to say that my Number 10 colleagues have been more than happy for me to continue my work as co-chair of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.
It is a measure of the importance of the issue – and of its cross-party nature – that I am able to put my name to a report that tomorrow will call on the government I work for to do more.
If we were saying this was simply a matter for ministers to deal with it might be different. But we are not.
The report makes clear that tackling loneliness is a generational challenge that can only be met by concerted action by everyone. Governments yes, but employers, businesses, civil society organisations, families, communities and individuals also have an essential role to play.
I didn’t hesitate when Jo Cox asked me to set up the Commission with her. Her passion and her energy were an inspiration and we became firm friends. After her murder, Rachel Reeves took up the task and together we have tried to be faithful to Jo’s original idea. More importantly we have done our best to remember every step of the way Jo’s belief that no matter how big the challenge there is always a practical solution to be found.
If the Commission had produced a report that was likely to be filed under a pile of others in the Cabinet Office – all of them no doubt marked ‘urgent’ – she would have been horrified. In fact, she’d have put it in the bin and insisted we start again.
Ministers have huge workloads. They don’t complain – it goes with the job. Everybody thinks their issue should be a top priority. Nothing pleases ministers and their civil servants more than a problem with a straightforward solution, so they can tick the box marked ‘done’ and move on.
So I apologise in advance to my colleagues in government because loneliness isn’t like that.
There are things that can be done now and these will be set out in the report. But, while loneliness isn’t a disease or something that can be attributed wholly or in part to unhealthy behaviour, there are parallels with smoking or obesity.
Loneliness can also be life threatening. NHS England said this week that it can increase the risk of premature death by a third. And, as with smoking and obesity, we have to bear down on the problem consistently and comprehensively.
A healthy life depends on meaningful connections with those around us. ‘Five a day’ is a brilliant public health message. In that spirit, we are calling on people to connect with four people so that they know there is somebody always looking out for them. And to ask ourselves who would count us as one of their four. Connect for a less lonely Britain.
And for Rachel and myself, we will always think of it as ‘Connect For Jo.’
Seema Kennedy, MP is the Conservative MP for South Ribble and co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. She is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister.