The Hindu Explains: From who is Lungi Ngidi to why U.K. needs Minister for loneliness

Why does the U.K. have a Minister for loneliness?


What are the findings?

According to the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, set up to recognise one of the issues that the former Labour MP had championed since entering Parliament in 2015, an estimated 9 million people in Britain say they are always or often lonely.

As for Cox herself, when she was a young girl living in Yorkshire, she often accompanied her grandfather, a postman, on his rounds. Over time, she realised that for some residents, her grandfather was the only person they saw all day.

Cox, who was brutally murdered on the street of her constituency two years ago, found that she experienced it too. While a student at Cambridge University, as a working-class woman from the north of England, she was something of an anomaly. Later, she felt it as a new mother, home alone with a baby.

The Commission published its findings late last year, identifying the widespread nature of the problem — faced by young children right up to the elderly, migrants and the disabled — as well as some of the initiatives that had been set up to help tackle it.

The Commission, chaired by Labour and Conservative backbench MPs, made recommendations on the road forward, including on the need for a single person to have ministerial accountability for tackling the kind of cross-government, cross-sector, and central/local government coordination that tackling the issue would need.

How is it being tackled?

Evidence given to the Commission suggested loneliness could be worse for one’s health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The Commission estimates it costs British employers £2.5 billion a year.

The portfolio has been handed to Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, who pledged to work across the political spectrum and with campaigners and businesses to make significant progress in “defeating loneliness.”

Will other countries follow suit?

The success of the ministerial portfolio is likely to be monitored by other countries: loneliness is a major problem across Europe, as it is elsewhere, with changing communities (globalised workforces increasing the distance between families), the impact of social media and changing technology, and the pressures of austerity (dwindling welfare and community cohesion budgets) adding to the complexity. It has already led to some innovative work (such as in the Netherlands, where a nursing home tied up with a university for an exchange programme where students received free rent in return for 30 hours of time per week socialising with elderly residents and helping them develop new skills), but others will be keen to see whether the now structured British initiative will help hone methods for tackling loneliness.

Will things actually change?

This is the big question. The real test will be going forward, as promises and policy go into the specifics, with the inevitable political analysis. Labour is likely to point to cuts in services and local government funding, which has led to the closure of community centres up and down the country. The issue of funding for mental health services — part of a wider and intense debate on NHS funding — is also likely to arise. The government is more likely to turn the focus away from the public sector and towards potential innovations by charities and the private sector.

Though the government is yet to specify the amount of funding that will be put into tackling the issue, more will likely become clear later this year, when it publishes a cross-department strategy on loneliness. Cox’s widower remains optimistic of progress, arguing the appointment of a Minister injected crucial accountability.

As for Ms. Crouch, she wrote in The Times after her appointment: “My challenge is to coordinate a strategy, one that crosses government, business, charities and many other partners — one that lasts a generation. This will not happen overnight and is no easy task but I am up for the challenge.”

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Printable version | Sep 12, 2021 5:47:25 PM |

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