Good morning everyone.
Thank you John, and thank you Public Health England for inviting me to speak today. I’m delighted to be here at this fantastic session to talk about loneliness.
Loneliness is an extremely important public health challenge that we face.
As the Minister leading the cross government work on loneliness, it’s heartening to see the work being done by Public Health England to raise awareness and respond to this issue.
I was appointed to my role by the Prime Minister in January of this year. This came in response to findings and recommendations from the Jo Cox Commission that was established after the murder of my parliamentary colleague Jo Cox.
Jo was a brilliant woman who was remarkable for everything she achieved - including, discussing her personal struggle with loneliness. While Jo’s experience of loneliness was very normal, the honesty with which she spoke about it was rare, and brave.
In Jo’s name, the Commission delivered its findings in December last year and in January this year the Prime Minister committed government to implementing many of its recommendations.
We are now the first Government in the world to be producing a national plan of action to tackle loneliness, and everyone is watching and waiting.
The global response to what we are doing here has been, and continues to be phenomenal, demonstrating even more the scale of the problem.
Today, I’m going to set out for you how Government has been taking forward Jo’s work in order to make a difference to the lives of up to 9 million adults in the UK who feel lonely.
But first, a question - why are up to nine million people in the UK lonely? We think that there are multiple reasons, including:
● technology reducing the need for face to face contact, although we do acknowledge its power to bring people together
● fewer people participating in community groups or speaking to their next door neighbours
● And the increasing amount of jobs being done remotely or alone which means that even work is becoming isolating
As you know, loneliness can cut across age, race, regions, and gender. As Jo Cox said, loneliness can affect anyone at anytime.
The definition government is using for loneliness is: the mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want.
Loneliness is personal and unique for everyone.
Loneliness fluctuates throughout a lifetime, and there is no one single driver and therefore no one single solution for loneliness.
We know loneliness is highly stigmatised. The Mental Health Foundation found that one in three adults (30%) are too embarrassed to admit they are feeling lonely, while 42% of young people are too embarrassed to tell their peers.
Not talking about loneliness conceals the damage it can cause. We understand better than ever the negative implications of feeling lonely.
Research shows that:
● Feeling lonely is linked to early deaths;
● And; it’s health impact is thought to be on a par with obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day
● Furthermore, it can affect your cardiac health, immune system, mental health, and even your behaviour.
To clarify, I’m not saying we should ‘medicalise’ the problem of loneliness. Instead, we need to be aware of the many medical conditions that are linked to loneliness.
Loneliness also has wider effects on society. There is evidence that lonely people are more likely to:
● be readmitted to hospital or have a longer stay
● enter residential care, or
● visit a GP or A&E
Our vision, then, is for Britain to be a place where people have strong social relationships and feel connected. And when they don’t, people should have plenty of opportunities to build meaningful and intimate relationships.
We want a society in which everyone actively takes responsibility for their relationships, where it is normal to know and speak to your neighbours.
And finally, we want to see a society in which loneliness doesn’t carry a stigma.
This vision requires everyone to take action.
So, what can government do?
We’re not going to start compulsory friend-making. We won’t be making laws forcing you to say “hi” to your nextdoor neighbour. And we’re not going to start taxing your children for failing to phone their grandparents regularly – although I’m sure the Treasury has already considered it.
But we, as Government, do have a role to play in creating the right conditions for individual and collective action.
So, there are three overarching goals to Government’s work on loneliness.
First, we must improve the evidence base on loneliness. We need to understand what makes a person feel lonely, what impact that feeling has, and the best ways to intervene.
We want to act early, to prevent people getting to the stage where they feel lonely all or most of the time. This will not only prevent the future need for a costly crisis intervention, but will directly improve people’s quality of life.
However, we don’t yet have enough evidence to understand the most effective interventions to tackle loneliness.
But we’ve been working closely with Dawn and her colleagues at the ONS to build a more detailed picture of who is affected, why, and how we can help.
And to help us on this journey, we are supporting the What Works Centre for Wellbeing to carry out a rapid review of interventions that tackle loneliness.
Our second goal is to make policy that brings people together to tackle loneliness, and not to isolate people further.
Next month, hopefully, we’ll be publishing a national strategy on loneliness.
Nine different Government ministers and their Departments have contributed to the strategy, from the Department for Transport setting out how to connect rural communities, to the Department for Education exploring how to build character and resilience amongst young people.
From DWP looking at the role of work to BEIS considering support for employees. And of course the Department of Health, where frankly, this portfolio could just as easily sit.
There is no silver bullet for tackling loneliness - we know that we need different solutions for different people.
For example, we’ve considered the role of arts and culture, as well as sport and volunteering, when looking at how to engage people and provide opportunities for relationships to thrive.
We’ve also thought specifically about young people in the strategy, and how their needs might be different to others. While loneliness has in the past been seen as an older person’s issue, we now appreciate that it can take hold at any point in life.
That’s why our strategy includes actions specifically for both young people and the elderly.
Steve Brine, in his keynote speech later this morning, will set out ways in which the Department of Health and Social Care is contributing to tackling loneliness through important work such as:
● social prescribing,
● building dementia friendly communities,
● and through the Carers Action Plan, which sets out support for carers in England over the next two years
Our cross-government strategy is supported by the Building Connections Fund, which was launched this summer.
Altogether, £20 million is available for work bringing people together across England. This includes:
● £5 million from the People’s Postcode Lottery
● And a further £4 million of new grants from the Health Lottery which will fund projects in our most deprived communities
The fund will support local initiatives that have a direct impact on people’s lives. And it will develop the evidence base on what works to tackle loneliness. We’re really excited to hear about all the great charities who will be supported by the fund.
Our third goal is to expand the national conversation taking place on loneliness.
Our partners at British Red Cross, Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission are doing some incredible work around raising awareness of loneliness.
We hope that our cross-government group’s work will amplify this further. We need to work with and learn from partners across society who have already begun to tackle loneliness.
I look forward to hearing about how local services can make such a vital difference in supporting people to feel connected.
Going forward, I want us to continue learning from frontline practitioners and community groups who are making a difference.
I also want us to push businesses to understand the role they play in bringing people together.
Government can’t solve loneliness alone. We need to take this on together. The wellbeing of one person is the same as the wellbeing of the wider community.
Loneliness is everybody’s issue and everybody is responsible for solving it and I look forward to working together with you in tackling this challenge.