This past week, to mark National Loneliness Awareness Week in the UK, I convened a policy discussion in London with advocates and allies who are working to address the crisis of social isolation. The event was inspiring but also sobering, as the scale and growth of this public health emergency begins to be understood by more and more people.
What’s more, this week also marked the sixth anniversary of the tragedy of Grenfell Tower—an example of social isolation on a systemic level. And today is the seventh anniversary of the assassination of a true champion on this issue: Jo Cox. I was thrilled to see Jo’s husband, Brendan Cox, at the event.
The epidemic of isolation is finally being recognized in the US, too. Last month, across the Atlantic, the US Surgeon General issued an advisory declaring social isolation to be a public health crisis. This is the kind of warning that’s usually reserved for threats to health like smoking or obesity.
Britain is further ahead in terms of a policy response. Five years ago, the UK became the first country in the world to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. The Prime Minister accepted the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on loneliness and made a lasting commitment to address the issue.
The Government pledged to try to reduce stigma by building the national conversation on loneliness, ensuring it is considered in policymaking and delivery, and helping improve the evidence base on the topic.
But how effective have the government’s actions been so far? Around £30 million has been spent on related issues since 2018— including a “Let’s Talk About Loneliness” campaign, £5 million for a lockdown loneliness action plan, and £2 million that went toward small charities.
The crisis, though, has been worsening. The Office of National Statistics found that the total number of people in the UK who say they “often” or “always” feel lonely increased from 2.6 million people in 2020 to 3.3 million people in 2022.
Since the Jo Cox Commission published its recommendations back in 2018, we’ve faced crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation that have all contributed to people’s feelings of isolation. It is clear that the policy response so far doesn’t match the scale of what we’re facing.
Loneliness is a directly related consequence of the broader concept of “belonging,” which is the focus of my work and flows from the crisis of connectedness I have been exploring.
We need to keep learning. We need to keep working. And we need to keep building connectedness and asserting the right to belong.