Loneliness is a drain on our communities and the NHS – but we have the means to confront it
Five years ago, the United Kingdom became the first country in the world to appoint a minister for loneliness – a key recommendation of the loneliness commission set up by Kim’s sister, the late Jo Cox.
This was an important step towards confronting an under-recognised issue which affects the health and wellbeing of millions of people across the country, and Tracey was the first person to hold the brief. At the time, though, we had no way of knowing that the world would shortly be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The virus forced schools, workplaces, and leisure facilities to close. We found ourselves unable to meet with family, friends and loved ones. Without warning, we all learned just how profound the effects of isolation can be.
Almost 39 per cent of participants said they were restricting how much they socialised this winter because of the increased cost of living
Beyond the pain of missing the people we care about, loneliness has been linked with having a weakened immune system, and increased risk of heart disease and dementia. One study has shown that regularly feeling lonely can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
There is also a sizeable economic toll. The Co-op and New Economics Foundation found that loneliness contributes to sickness absence and reduced productivity, costing UK employers around £2.5bn per year. And crucially, loneliness can be a factor in higher staff turnover at a time when businesses are struggling to retain workers and fill jobs.
As our communities recover from the pandemic, many of us have been able to rebuild our social connections. But for others, things haven’t been so easy. In a poll commissioned by the British Red Cross, 12 per cent of adults in England said they often or always felt lonely. Extrapolated to the entire population, and this represents millions of people.
The same poll suggests that the cost of living crisis is having a dramatic effect on people’s ability to maintain social ties. Almost 39 per cent of participants said they were restricting how much they socialised this winter because of the increased cost of living, while more than eight out of 10 said they thought loneliness was a serious issue, and over half (63 per cent) said they believed that loneliness will be a bigger problem this winter than last winter.
While the darkest days of the pandemic may be behind us, loneliness remains a persistent challenge. But it is one which we can confront. One weapon in our arsenal is social prescribing – a system which equips GPs, nurses and other caregivers to connect people with voluntary organisations, sports clubs, hobby groups and befrienders. This approach allows people to form new social bonds, and at a time when our NHS is under unprecedented strain, it can even help to reduce pressure on accident and emergency services, ensuring that people can access support in their communities before their needs escalate.
NHS England has committed to increasing its use of social prescribing and aims to refer at least 900,000 people to services by 2023/24. Since the creation of the loneliness brief five years ago, we’ve seen the delivery of 60 commitments from nine government departments – from transport to communities to business.
These are encouraging first steps, but tackling loneliness requires a sustained and coordinated approach which incorporates government, local authorities, businesses, community groups and individuals. While money might be tight, investing in connecting our communities will pay off through increased productivity and reduced demand on public services.
A coordinated approach to address loneliness requires national leadership. That’s why the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities is calling for a strengthened cross-government approach to confronting this persistent issue.
At the same time, we need every local authority in the country to develop a loneliness plan, with money and guidance from government to help implement them. We must put social connection at the heart of our transport systems, housing developments and planning policies and ensure that our country’s social and community infrastructure does not crumble as a result of the challenging economy.
Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have presented unprecedented challenges, but they have also shown that in difficult times our social connections are more than just a comfort – they are a necessity. It is critical that the government continues to recognise this and recommits to tackling loneliness with a clear vision and significant resources allocated in its upcoming annual loneliness report.
By ensuring that government departments, devolved institutions and councils have the funding, expertise and direction to confront loneliness, we can ensure a successful recovery and a stronger, kinder, healthier country.
Tracey Crouch is the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford and Kim Leadbeater is the Labour MP for Batley and Spen. They are co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Tackling Loneliness and Connected Communities.
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