There are nine million lonely people in the UK, four million of them old. A staggering statistic that propelled the UK government to name a Minister of Loneliness last year, a move that seemed straight out of the classic British political sitcom Yes Minister.
Perhaps, it’s that English philosophy of “stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on” that is to be blamed. Asked about this, Minister of Loneliness Mims Davies says, “You have a point there. It’s our culture, where we are almost encouraged to keep ourselves to ourselves — don’t reveal any vulnerability in particular, lest it be misconstrued.”
Last month, her ministry launched a programme, “Let’s talk loneliness”, to enable exactly that: encourage people to talk about their feelings and reach out to others. “Just a small hi, how do you do, can help,” says Davies. “The community, as it existed in the eras gone by, is breaking — and we need to do something to fill the gap.”
Maggie, 48, is a resident of Southampton, a small town where nothing much seems to happen. She lives in a lovely, leafy suburb, Hedge End, where houses are almost submerged in shrubs, or so it feels. “Nothing much to do here if you are alone, but this is cheaper compared to London. Not many people to talk to and I go sit in the cafes, chat with the baristas, or anybody else — like you turned up now,” she says. At least she knows the people in the small neighbourhood.
What about London and other big cities? Among the people surveyed by YouGov research, the urban-rural divide is skewed — 56 % in the cities feel lonely as compared to 44% elsewhere. Interestingly, the weekends trigger more loneliness, according to the research — a 15% spike.
Loneliness isn’t an emotional experience, but it also affects health. “It’s comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and can lead to obesity and physical inactivity, and even coronary heart disease,” says Campaign to End Loneliness, an organisation whose job is self-evident. Fliers can be seen in inner grimy lanes in London and elsewhere: “Feeling lonely? Call this number”. At first glance, they look like an advertisement for a sex-chat line, but they turn out to be something else. Human voices in lonely times. Not just elderly people or the homeless, but migrants too have a hard time in settling down in a new country.
“Nobody has an arrow over their heads that says I am lonely, it’s fellow citizens who have to be more perceptive and aware,” says Davies. “Ask people who you know may be lonely. Pick up the phone and talk to your friends and others. Don’t just text.”
India may not be any better; probably no one has cared enough to research and analyse the situation, but at least the chai addas and mohalla talks offer someone to talk to. “We don’t have that here… that social experience, environment play a big part, of course, but I would dare say that loneliness is a world-wide phenomenon. Humanity as a whole needs to be friendlier with each other,” says Davies.
The ministry came up after a commission on loneliness was established by an MP, Jo Cox, who was later killed in 2016. The work was carried on by Cox’s friend and Labour MP, Rachel Reeves, and another MP, Seema Kennedy. After the commission’s report, the Prime Minister set up a ministry headed by Tracey Couch, the first Minister of Loneliness, before she stepped down and Davies took over.
However, while the government may have set up a ministry, it also took some measures that haven’t gone down too well. Critics point out that Theresa May’s government cut down funding for libraries, which have acted as social lifelines for solitary people, and many public libraries have shut down. The Sure Start programme, established in the 1990s by the Labour government to help infants from disadvantaged backgrounds before they joined schools, has also been affected by the cuts in spending. The ongoing cuts in social spending, critics fear, would lead to more loneliness.
“Those is sensible criticism indeed, but some of these were difficult to sustain financially, and (there were) other challenges on the ground,” says Davies. “But we are trying our best, in rallying together voluntary groups, NGOs, community cares and trying to put our best foot forward in eradicating this loneliness scourge from our society.”