As we head into the New Year, and with a new government, it feels like the right time to reflect on how far we have come with tackling loneliness in the UK. We know it continues to be one of the biggest public health crises of our times and its effect is especially important during the festive season.
At the British Red Cross, we see through our services up and down the country how Christmas can be an especially difficult time for people who are living with loneliness. Nonetheless, the good news is that together with our partners, we are making big steps towards a less lonely year in 2020.
In reality, the Red Cross has been helping people facing loneliness for decades. Since the NHS started, we have been supporting patients to get home and rebuild independent lives after a stay in hospital. Indeed, loneliness is an experience many people face when experiencing a major life change, not only long-term illness, but also bereavement or becoming a parent at a young age.
Our work with refugees and asylum seekers over the years has highlighted to us the diverse range of people who experience loneliness in this country. It is a great sadness that people who have potentially escaped life-threatening situations or conflict to seek safety and stability in the UK, are often left isolated when they arrive here due language barriers, very low income and a lack of social connections.
In 2015 we began our groundbreaking partnership with Co-op to tackle loneliness. Like us, Co-op members recognised the urgency of this issue and the devastating impact loneliness was having on peoples’ lives – and were determined to help.
Nearly five years on, and what progress we’ve made together. Through our innovative Connecting Communities service, we have used a form of ‘social prescribing’ to help nearly 12,000 people rebuild self-confidence and forge new social connections. The impact has been undeniable, with three quarters of our service users seeing a reduction in loneliness and an increase in well-being following our support.
With such powerful effects for our service users, we wanted to push this agenda further and build on the evidence base that we started with our publication of the report Trapped in a Bubble, which unpicked the scale and triggers of loneliness. We explored what works to help people overcome loneliness – and used this to successfully call for the roll out of social prescribing across England. And we’ve shone a spotlight on the additional barriers people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can face in re-connecting.
We are immensely proud of the contribution our campaigning and advocacy work has made to the development of the government’s Loneliness Strategy for England, with similar work taking place in the devolved nations. Furthermore, we have seen the appointment of the world’s first Minister for Loneliness – and helped to ensure the post has been retained through two governments to date.
We could not have done any of this on our own, and for the past couple of years it has been our honour to have convened more than 60 public, charitable and private sector organisations on this key issue of our time. The Loneliness Action Group has played a key role in taking forward the legacy of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and act as a ‘critical friend’ to government.
While the end of this decade may mark the conclusion of our formal partnership with the Co-op, as we enter the British Red Cross’ 150th year, our work to tackle loneliness is far from over. The roll out of social prescribing services under NHS England has only just begun. We are at a critical moment in the journey to reduce stigma around loneliness and ensure everyone in need can get help to overcome it.
Next year we will be supporting a major inquiry into loneliness through our work as the secretariat to the APPG on Loneliness, building on recommendations made in the wider Loneliness Action Group’s 2019 Shadow Report. Continued commitment from Government is crucial if we are to maintain and build on the progress towards a more connected society.
In 2020 the Red Cross will continue to advocate for long-term funding for loneliness services, building on our existing evidence base by undertaking new research on the issue. In addition, we will be supporting the roll out of education initiatives in England to help children and young people understand and deal with feelings of loneliness, as well as supporting their peers.
And we will also continue to draw on the insights acquired through delivering our Connecting Communities services and use this to improve our work across our own organisation. For example, our learnings on how to help people experiencing loneliness are being rolled out into all our ‘independent living’ services, which reach around 100,000 people a year.
My personal ambition is that this time next year, anyone experiencing loneliness feels able to speak up about it; and are met with the help they need to reconnect. While tackling an epidemic of loneliness in the UK might seem a huge task, it is the many small acts of kindness that can ultimately add up to something very powerful.
Zoe Abrams is executive director of communications and advocacy at the British Red Cross, and co-chair of the Loneliness Action Group.