Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Britain just created an entirely new ministry to tackle this serious public health concern.
On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people.
With the news still fresh, it’s too soon to detail exactly what policy proposals will be made by new Loneliness Minister Tracey Crouch, who will also continue in her current role as sports minister. But the idea has clearly sparked the public imagination, leading many to speculate as to why the post is necessary and what the new minister could actually do to improve the situation of lonely British people.
The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The toll taken by loneliness is immense, but still a sense of stigma inhibits many lonely people from reaching out for help. According to research by Britain’s Campaign to End Loneliness, a majority (56 percent) of British adults say that admitting loneliness is difficult. And when lonely people seek to reach out, suitable networks aren’t necessarily available, inadvertently causing pressure on the health system. In one of the most poignant findings by the campaign, more than three quarters of British general practitioners said they saw one to five patients a day who had made an appointment (free at point of contact in the U.K.) mainly because they were lonely.
So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.
Stronger political advocacy on loneliness could, for example, affect thinking on public transit. If a bus line is re-routed or canceled, authorities could be encouraged to consider the effect that might have in raising social isolation for people who live along the route—an effect that could potentially raise their costs elsewhere.
A minister could also provide guidance and support to businesses that regularly make home visits, like plumbers or electricians. Those employees could be trained to spot signs of acute loneliness—and if possible, provide some social contact to help lessen it. The minister of loneliness could even provide guidelines on altering the layout of public space. In a country where many older people express alienation at the increasingly automated nature of British High Streets, there is room for more advocacy of simple solutions to combat this alienation, such as more strategically placed seating in public areas and stores, making them more manageable and inviting.
There is a potential contradiction at work here, one that could lead to a clash between a Minister of Loneliness and other departments. The Conservative government creating the post has (both in its own right and as successor to the government of David Cameron) presided over brutal austerity cuts that have forced hundreds of community centers and youth centers to close, causing (among other things) a social isolation spike for many of their users.
Unusually for Britain, however, the post has actually had a bipartisan genesis, with the current government building the role upon research and campaigning initiated by Labour MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by an extreme-right terrorist in 2016. If the new post succeeds in creating a viable blueprint for the assessment and reduction of loneliness across society, it may end up proving very influential indeed.