Why all policies must be put to the “loneliness test”

Policy-making decisions must have their wider social, as well as economic, impact taken into account.

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Today, the government announces its loneliness strategy for England, just ten months after appointing a minister on the issue. This represents remarkable progress in tackling one of the most pervasive issues of our time, which until recent years had commonly been viewed as an issue for individuals to face on their own. It is a great start towards helping people across our country whose lives have been blighted by chronic loneliness and isolation for too long.

We are pleased to see commitment to today’s strategy from nine government departments and the varied expertise this will bring. We believe the challenge of tackling loneliness and the responsibility for being part of the solution needs to be recognised and acted upon by all parts of the public sector, including at a local level.

We welcome steps towards ensuring all government policy promotes connectedness, beginning with including it in guidance for the "family test". Going forward we would like to see a ‘"loneliness test" for all new government policies and plans – and for support to roll this out to local authorities. The British Red Cross will continue to push for this to be implemented and given adequate resources.

At the British Red Cross we see lonely people every day through our "Community Connector" services (set up in partnership with the Co-op), who tell us about the change in their life that left them isolated and the distress this loneliness has caused. 

Examples of these life changes or transitions include: having to move house to a new area shortly after bereavement; a lack of transport provision after ill health left them unable to drive; or struggling to find local social connections after having a baby at a young age.

Of course, these changes of circumstance could happen to any one of us. Short periods of loneliness are a normal part of human experience. I imagine, however, we’d each hope that if we found ourselves trapped in long-term loneliness then there would be someone to help us find a way out of it.

Following the consultative process the government took in writing the loneliness strategy, and that the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness championed before, we are now in a position where we collectively know so much more about the points in people’s lifetimes when they are most at risk of loneliness, and what can help them out if it they do. 

Examining any reductions to services or policy changes for their potential impact on loneliness would help address many connected issues. The more we understand unwanted isolation, the more we see the impact on related areas of peoples’ well-being. It’s time for loneliness to become a more common consideration for all public services.

So while policy decisions such as changes to a local transport service or closure of a library may be currently assessed on cost, we believe the degree to which they foster or protect social connections should be considered too.

Some of our service users also find themselves struggling with compounding issues including anxiety, depression or complex, long-term health conditions which leave them physically isolated from their communities. We would argue that the government as a whole must consider the impact of wider service gaps on efforts to address loneliness, including strains on adult social care and mental health services.

The Red Cross remains committed to continuing to co-chair the Loneliness Action Group next year, which brings together leaders and experts from all sectors (charity, business, communities).  We want to play an active role in supporting the government in implementing its loneliness strategy and are ambitious about driving forward real change that will make a difference to lonely people’s lives.  After all, anyone can experience loneliness, and everyone can help.  

For more information on British Red Cross please visit: http://www.redcross.org.uk

Zoë Abrams is executive director of communications and advocacy at British Red Cross.