GPs will be able to refer people to social activities for loneliness, Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed.
Instead of prescribing pills, doctors will be encouraged to use “social prescribing” to refer lonely people to activities including cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups.
Announcing an extra £1.8 million for community projects, such as creating new community cafes, art spaces or gardens, Mrs May said social prescriptions would reduce demand on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life.
Launching the first loneliness strategy, Mrs May confirmed English GPs will be able to refer lonely people to community and voluntary activities by 2023, as she paid tribute to murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who had campaigned to end loneliness before her death.
Mrs May said: “Jo Cox was absolutely right to highlight the critical importance of this growing social injustice which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental well-being as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.
“I was pleased to be able to support the Loneliness Commission set up in Jo’s name and I am determined to do everything possible to take forward its recommendations.
“This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country – but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes.”
Loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, Mrs May said, and is linked to illnesses including heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.
About 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month and three-quarters of GPs said they see up to five people every day suffering loneliness.
Speaking on behalf of the Jo Cox Foundation, Jo’s sister Kim Leadbeater said she was delighted to see the strategy being launched.
She said: “The work on loneliness has been a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy and it is heartwarming to see how much progress has been made on the subject since her murder.
“It is excellent to see that loneliness is now firmly on the Government’s agenda, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved in getting us to this point.
“The important thing now is to turn the dialogue and strategy into action – that is undoubtedly what Jo would want, and for every life that is made less lonely as a result of the work she started and that we have all continued, we will take great comfort.”
As well as social prescriptions, postal workers will be encouraged to check in with lonely people on their delivery rounds in a new scheme with Royal Mail in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby.
The Prime Minister also announced the first ever employer pledge to tackle loneliness in the workplace, which has the support of businesses – including Sainsbury’s, Co-op, National Grid, Transport for London, British Red Cross, and the civil service.
Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch said the strategy aimed to bring together health services, businesses, councils, charities and community groups to help people build connections to lead happier and healthier lives.
Nobody should feel alone or be left with no one to turn to,” she said.
“Loneliness is a serious issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds and it is right that we tackle it head on.
“Our strategy sets out a powerful vision for addressing this generational challenge.”
The new funding builds on £20 million announced in June to help charities and community groups expand their programmes which bring people together to benefit communities.