New UK Minister for Loneliness Sets Crucial Precedent

Last week, the British government set a new precedent for nations around the world. In a bold and progressive move, Prime Minister Theresa May announced the appointment of MP Tracey Crouch as Minister for Loneliness, with the task of addressing the country’s national loneliness epidemic affecting millions of Brits. The decision, according to May, was attributed to “the sad reality of modern life.”

A number of key events brought about this important new appointment. In 2016, the British Red Cross and Co-Op teamed up and published a comprehensive report on social isolation factors in Britain. Trapped in a Bubble: An investigation into Triggers for Loneliness in the UK delved into many loneliness factors that affect six key groups: young mothers, individuals with mobility limitations, individuals with health issues, recently divorced or separated individuals, empty nesters / recently retired individuals, and the recently bereaved. The study revealed that over 9 million people in the UK are affected by loneliness, with the report also helping the British Red Cross to establish new services in an effort to combat the growing issue.

Around this same time, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness was established as a cross-party commission by the late British Labour MP Jo Cox, who was tragically murdered in the summer of 2016. Loneliness and social isolation had deeply affected Jo throughout various stages of her life. Her sister Kim Leadbeater described her as someone who had “struggled at times with profound loneliness,” both as a student and a new mother.

Following Jo’s death, the Jo Cox Foundation was created in order to continue her important work, especially tackling the UK’s loneliness crisis. In December 2017, the Foundation and the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness released a report of its study on social isolation, calling on the government to fill the “gap in national leadership on loneliness.” The report details some of the powerful effects of social isolation, explaining that it can be as “harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Economically, the report also reveals some harrowing statistics, as the problem of loneliness creeps into many other aspects of society such as healthcare and public spending. For example, three out of four general practitioners in the UK revealed that they see between 1 and 5 people a day who, sadly, visit the practice mainly because they are lonely and want to connect with someone. The report also indicates that the issue of social isolation could be costing UK employers up to 2.5 billion pounds a year. What’s more, “disconnected communities” could be costing the UK economy up to 32 billion pounds a year.

Prime Minister May’s announcement is a direct implementation of the report’s calls to action. Upon hearing the news, the Jo Cox Foundation tweeted that the late MP “would be delighted by Tracey Crouch’s new job as minister for loneliness and would be saying ‘let’s get to work!’” May also announced that the UK government would be developing a wider national strategy for loneliness, and would provide funding for community organizations to help tackle the problem. Meanwhile, the Jo Cox Foundation announced that it will hold its second annual “Great Get Together,” a weekend of events dedicated to community building in Jo’s honour. The event will take place on her birthdate, June 22nd.

As the UK presents it plans to tackle social isolation, the question naturally becomes, what will other countries do? In Canada, a 2016 survey found that two-thirds of Canadian university students admitted to feeling “very lonely” in the past year. And as noted in a Toronto Star editorial this week, social isolation significantly affects the health of Canadians, who are now living alone more so than ever. In a piece for the Globe and Mail, British Columbia seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie expressed her optimism surrounding the appointment of the new Minister for Loneliness, stating that, at the very least, the announcement could help get the “conversation going” here in Canada.

And so it has. On January 21st, CBC Radio’s Cross Country Check-Up, a weekly national call-in show, invited Canadians to join a conversation about whether Canada should develop a national strategy to address social isolation. Callers noted that often it is older persons suffering the most in isolation, and that social media has introduced all sorts of new problems for younger Canadians. Perhaps most significantly, the show highlighted how much stigma there is around loneliness, with people of all ages afraid to admit they’re lonely.

The show also highlighted steps being taken in Canada to overcome social isolation. For example, Vancouver has developed a Healthy City Strategy promoting the building of more walkable public spaces and encouraging residential towers to foster connected communities among their residents. Elsewhere, Manitoba started “Let no one be alone,” a week of action in May to help seniors connect with their communities through organized teas, dinners, volunteer phone programs, and more.

With all of these developments in mind, this week the social connectedness movement will be represented at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos by Kim Samuel. In her speaking engagement and conversations with government, business and civil society leaders, Kim will advocate for even greater international focus on the growing problem of social isolation and the human right to belong.

You too can join the conversation this week on social media! Tag @sconnectedness and #wef18 on Twitter to tell us what steps you think your country, city or community should take to address social isolation and build connectedness for everyone.