It’s not a ministerial post of the conventional type. Tracey Crouch, the newly-appointed Minister for Loneliness, won’t be in charge of a ‘Ministry for Loneliness’; the position won’t entitle her to a seat at the top Cabinet table next to Mr Hammond, Ms Rudd, or Mr Johnson. And, in comparison to the heavy-hitting bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, foreign affairs, or security, loneliness seems a rather narrow-minded remit. However, her appointment as loneliness minister is the government’s first answer in response to a report made by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness — and it could be the start of something big.
OK, we’ve definitely heard that before. The Conservatives, after all, have a history of starting ambitious projects that peter out at the sight of the next carrot to dangle over the ballot box — ‘Big Society’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ come to mind. Besides, in a government totally engulfed in Brexit negotiations and transition periods, it is reasonable to have low expectations in what seems like another government pet project. Therefore, we must call time on the notion that only government is responsible for our aspirations for society. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that this spark of momentum goes from strength to strength.
The position comes from honourable origins in desperate times. As the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, stated in a 2017 report, loneliness affects nine million people in the UK from all walks of life. When it comes to our health, it found that loneliness affected the body in the same way as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. The report warned, however, that tackling the issue would be a ‘generational challenge’, requiring input from all corners of society as well as government to make significant progress; this means charities, businesses, and even ourselves as individuals.
Whilst the Office of National Statistics has been drafted in to create a series of indicators across the social spectrum to measure the government’s progress, the government itself will have to answer tough questions as to why loneliness has become so pervasive in communities. Ms Crouch herself faced tough questions only minutes into her appointment, when she was asked whether the shutting of community meeting points such as libraries and daycare centres had contributed to the issue. This point was separately argued by Peter Coville for OpenDemocracyUK, who went on to blame neoliberalism as a whole for promoting a zero-sum game between the pursuit of freedom and ‘attachments’, whether they be longer-term projects or human connections.
But we must also question our own individual contributions towards combatting loneliness. It’s certainly an issue we all empathise with and have most likely suffered from at some point in our lives. Action for Children found that more than half of UK parents had felt lonely at some point. Meanwhile Age UK has found that 1.9 million older people feel ignored or invisible. According to the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, 7 out of 10 young people surveyed said they were lonely, with those in neither employment, education, nor training 20% more likely to feel lonely.
If we’re all feeling it and we can all empathise, why have we let it become such a problem?
Some say we just don’t care. Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age stated that negative attitudes towards loneliness extended towards even blaming the lonely themselves for their situations. That may be true amongst the seemingly able, those who apparently don’t have an excuse to stay indoors and not interact (in a similar vein to telling a depressed friend to ‘cheer up’ or an anxious one to ‘calm down’). In addition, Coville argues later in his article that former volunteers and participants in society are so ‘squeezed’ for their true economic worth that they simply don’t have the time or energy to help combat loneliness. Indeed, one survey for the UK Civil Society Almanac showed that only 19% of surveyed volunteers had done so for community groups, and 17% for the elderly.
But that doesn’t explain the 22.7 million minutes pledged for Good Morning Britain’s ‘1 Million Minutes’ campaign, helping to combat loneliness amongst the elderly. Nor the enormously heartwarming ‘#JoinIn’ Christmas Day Twitter campaigns, where Tweeters during the holiday could look out for each other and keep each other company online. When we’ve been called to action, we’ve risen to the challenge. The problem isn’t our ability to empathise and branch out; the problem is that we only take action when we’re prodded to do it.
This is where I’m hopeful about our new loneliness minister. Appointing a minister to head a coordinated, wide-reaching social strategy to combat loneliness offers us a clear opportunity to be aware every day of how many of us are suffering and the simple ways we can make a difference. As we hear every week about the environment, crime, and the economy, I hope Ms Crouch will have the courage to remind us of the responsibility that all parts of society share in combating loneliness. It’s only when we all accept our responsibilities that something will change.