The Minister for Loneliness Tracey Crouch has admitted Tory cuts may have “inadvertently” made loneliness worse.
A new strategy to tackle loneliness, including doctors prescribing dancing and cookery classes, was launched by Prime Minister Theresa May this weekend.
But Ms Crouch admitted her government’s austerity policies could have added to people’s burdens during a ministerial statement to the Commons.
She had been challenged by Labour MP Steve Reed, shadow minister for civil society, who urged the Chancellor to invest in health care or risk the loneliness strategy failing to get off the ground.
Mr Reed said: “It’s my opinion that, unless the Chancellor reverses the cuts in healthcare funding in the budget, then the flourishing of social prescribing and community projects that the minister wants to see will never happen.”
Ms Crouch acknowledged “difficult decisions” had been made and pledged “more responsible” decisions would be taken in future to ensure the government did not make people more lonely.
She said: “We do recognise that difficult decisions were taken during difficult times to try and regain economic balance and those difficult decisions may have had an inadvertent impact on loneliness.
“What we have to do… is make policy responsibly as we do for other issues to and stay to ensure we look at loneliness and have considered that as part of policy test.”
Ms Crouch’s new strategy brings together health services, businesses, councils, charities and community groups to help people build connections to lead happier and healthier lives.
Instead of prescribing pills, doctors will be encouraged to use “social prescribing” to refer lonely people to activities and postal workers will be encouraged to call in on lonely people during their delivery rounds.
An extra £1.8 million for community projects, such as creating new community cafes, art spaces or gardens, has been announced to reduce demand on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life.
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.
Around 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.
Mrs May visited the Vauxhall Gardens Community Centre in south London on Monday to highlight the need for social activity.
At the centre, the Prime Minister chatted with members of a social club, joined in a quiz and helped make coffee.
Lilian Pannell, 86, told the Press Association: “She was very friendly. She asked me about our club, and I told her how it made my life different because you meet people.”
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.
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.