Five years on from the world first loneliness strategy, we need to build momentum and keep loneliness high on the political agenda
Five years ago this month, then prime minister Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch as the first ever Minister for Loneliness. It was to be the start of what May described as a “national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes”. Later that year Crouch would launch the world’s first loneliness strategy to address the issue in England. Scotland would follow suit with its loneliness strategy two months later. The Welsh Government published its own version just over a year after that.
Loneliness affects almost a quarter of the UK population. And its impact can be truly profound. Many studies demonstrate the link between loneliness and poor physical and mental health. Some claims suggest that it can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and that loneliness can increase your overall risk of death by 26%.
The impact of loneliness reaches far beyond the individual. Recent studies have estimated that the economic & wellbeing cost of severe loneliness per person is equivalent to nearly £10k per year, because of the impact on people’s wellbeing, health and productivity.
The Covid pandemic only heightened evidence for how important social capital is to our health and wellbeing. But, whilst some measures were introduced to combat the isolating impact of lockdowns, we’ve since seen a slowing in the momentum behind tackling the loneliness epidemic. Ultimately, shifts in political priorities and a rising cost of living crisis have led to a fragmentation of the loneliness agenda across the UK. Given the announcements of tight public spending, particularly in England, should we be worried that the ability to continue this great work is at risk?
As things stand, the levels of loneliness experienced across the UK continue to be stubbornly high. The cost of living crisis only compounds the issue. As bills rise and disposable income goes down, many people are becoming more isolated from their communities and friends. Unsurprisingly, adults who report feeling very worried about the rising costs of living also reported worse on measures of wellbeing, including loneliness.
To tackle the loneliness epidemic effectively, we need to keep a focus on evidence. Three successive governments have committed to building the evidence base behind loneliness, and a lot of great work has been done since then to begin to plug the gaps. But questions still remain.
One of these evidence gaps is around the true relationship between health and loneliness over time. While loneliness has gained greater traction as a public health issue, we still don’t really understand the extent to which reducing loneliness would improve healthy years lived or broader health outcomes.
Put simply, just how dangerous is loneliness to our long-term health?
We at Nesta believe getting to the bottom of this question is critical if we are to see more resources directed towards tackling this issue. Nesta has a long-standing interest in the smarter use of evidence in policy and practice, having been closely involved in the establishment of the What Works Centre Network. In the past we have used ou rStandards of Evidence to support our grantees – including those developing solutions to loneliness – to grow their evidence of impact. Today we continue to be committed to improving the standards of evidence that exist in this space.
In line with this commitment, our healthy life mission aims to help grow the robust evidence base on how loneliness is linked to ill health. This will help drive new and more effective solutions to reduce loneliness and improve overall health.
Nesta is on a mission to help tackle the UK’s loneliness epidemic. We’re excited to be kicking things off this year by opening up to collaborating with experts in the field and scrutinising the wealth of health and loneliness data in the UK. This work is vital to maintaining loneliness as a priority for governments and others across the UK, ensuring that vital policies and resources are put into place.
The nation's governments have laid solid foundations. Now we must ensure that loneliness remains a firm priority in the years to come. Loneliness is not a simple challenge to solve. There is no magic bullet. But with strong evidence and clear incentives, we can continue to drive action and build on the momentum needed to tackle the issue and create a healthier, happier future for all.
Listen to Lauren Bowes Byatt, Deputy Director for Nesta’s healthy life mission, speak with Olivia Field, Head of Policy at the British Red Cross, as they reflect on England's first loneliness strategy, its successes and challenges. The conversation covers topics such as social prescribing, an area that Nesta is keen to explore. Olivia also mentions the impact British Red Cross’s connecting communities programme had on people.