The age of loneliness demands action

The most effective policymaking puts people first.

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Over the past fortnight, we have seen steps taken both forward and back on loneliness, like a Strictly Come Dancing contestant struggling to master their new moves. Discussion about mental wellbeing and isolation broke into the nation’s living rooms as people were encouraged to talk during a break in Britain’s Got TalentSue Perkins filmed the effects of a week’s confinement, and Goggleboxers debated the Age UK/Cadbury advert on Channel 4.

This feels like a break-through moment. Loneliness is now part of the public consciousness. At the same time, with the high street struggling and services withdrawn from rural communities many customers are no longer able to draw cash from post offices, and councils are struggling to fund schemes such as mobile libraries or mobility aids for shoppers.

We are now in a position where lasting positive change is possible as we know what policies are needed. As chair of the APPG on loneliness, supported by British Red Cross and Co-op, I have seen real progress. When nine government departments agree to commit to almost 60 new policies to help tackle loneliness – as they did one year ago for the launch of the Loneliness Strategy – that is a great advance, and creates a strong foundation to build from.

Two years ago, when I chaired the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, we wanted to shine a light on this hidden issue, galvanise leadership and amplify efforts made at community levels with funding and proper measurement of progress. We are reaching these aims, but we must not lose our ambition if we want to make a difference to our society.

This week’s announcement of a new grants fund to tackle loneliness is welcome. I’m greatly heartened to see cross-government commitment to continue tackling this issue. But if we want change to be meaningful, we need to do more.

When we know that one in five people – of all ages, not just older people – are affected by loneliness, and that has a knock-on impact on so areas of people’s lives, from health to education to employment, we need to make some practical changes that go beyond the well-meaning.

There are many tangible, achievable changes that can be made, as evidenced in a report by the Loneliness Action Group led by the British Red Cross and Co-op partnership tackling loneliness. These range from making sure transport policies are “loneliness-proofed”, so people are not cut off from town centres or public services, making sure our housing policy supports social interaction, and investing in projects that are proved to work so they can be replicated.

Good work is being done, but it cannot continue in a piecemeal way as some cherry-picked examples. Successful interventions should be embedded into policy, and enabled by a significant injection of funding – something we will demand in next month’s budget. That’s when we’ll know that the conversations happening in living rooms will have permeated even further – into Parliament and the very heart of government.

Rachel Reeves MP is chair of the APPG on loneliness.