Let's capitalise on community spirit and end loneliness for good

We have armies of volunteers who have proven they want to help their neighbours – so let's nurture a connected society where loneliness has no place to hide

Loneliness has become one of the most pressing challenges of modern society, and with the Coronavirus lockdown, there is even more urgency to tackle it – but there may be hope.

In the political arena it is impossible to talk about loneliness without paying tribute to the legacy of the late Jo Cox and her work in this area. Jo’s quote that “loneliness does not discriminate” couldn’t be more true today. Her work and legacy led the government back in 2018 to appoint the first-ever ministerial leatd on loneliness and produce a far-reaching cross-departmental approach in tackling this growing epidemic.

Perhaps the most ground-breaking aspect of the announcement was that it was the first time in an official capacity that any UK government had focussed on loneliness – and took the first important step in tackling the stigma that surrounds it.

As the government report ‘A Connected Society’ pointed out at the time, and subsequent research has proven, loneliness has very real health and economic consequences. For example, research by The Campaign to End Loneliness found that a lacking social connection is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Negative effects are also known to cover cardiovascular disease and stroke along with decreased memory and learning. The economic impact is high with research commissioned by the Eden Project identifying that disconnected communities could cost the UK economy £32bn every year. No doubt there are other hidden costs beyond this too.

When campaigning over the years I have been increasingly aware that when I knocked on doors to garner votes, some people would just want to chat; not about politics, policy or even potholes – but just chat. Through the conversations, I realised that I was the first person they may have spoken to for days or even weeks.

These experiences had a lasting impact on me, which is why I chose for my maiden speech to focus on community and tackling loneliness. My speech was pre-coronavirus, so the main concern I raised was the growing digital divide and how the rise of social media meant people were more focussed on looking down at their screens than looking up at those around them.

My point then was where we once used to talk about being ‘lonely in a crowd’, we are now ‘lonely in ‘the cloud’. Little could I have known then that loneliness would later take centre stage as coronavirus took grip around the world. Despite so many of us now using social media and video conferencing tools like Zoom to keep in touch, there are still swathes of people without access to technology to do so. They say it is lonely at the top, but it is even lonelier at the bottom if you cannot access the facilities to even say hello to another human being.

Despite the awful backdrop, there is some good to come out of the lockdown. It is ironic but the Government rules around self-isolation have raised awareness of those in our communities who were already isolated. Communities have been coming together across the UK to help vulnerable and lonely people in droves. The truth is the current lockdown means that some of those vulnerable people may be getting more attention, support, and kindness from neighbours than ever before.

It is this shift in our public consciousness that we must be mindful of. It is important that when we defeat coronavirus, we don’t lose sight of the battle against loneliness. We now have armies of volunteers across the UK who have proven they are ready, willing and able to help their neighbours.

So let us all look at how we can build upon the community spirit which is flowing through every community today, and ensure that for the rest of our tomorrows we apply these experiences to nurture a new enlightened society where loneliness has no place to hide.