Since becoming Minister for Sport & Civil Society, I have had the privilege of leading the government’s work to help tackle loneliness. The late Jo Cox brought this issue to national prominence and I am working, with many others, to continue her legacy following the publication of England’s first loneliness strategy last year.
Loneliness is one of the most pressing public health issues this country faces. Between 5 and 18 per cent of all UK adults feel lonely most or all of the time, and there is evidence to show that loneliness can be as bad for health as obesity or smoking. I am determined to continue a national conversation about it, to maintain its profile and to tackle the stigma that surrounds it. With the help of businesses, the voluntary sector, and work taking place across government, I believe we are starting to do just that.
It has also become increasingly clear that loneliness is an international issue and is being recognised as a public health concern in many other countries around the world. My team and I have had contact with people and organisations from across the world, such as the USA, Sweden, Canada and Japan, all keen to learn from what we are doing.
Loneliness can affect everyone from time to time. Life events and personal challenges such as moving home, a new baby, a recent bereavement or social isolation can all trigger a sense of loneliness. Following the announcement of more than £20m funding to tackle this issue in June 2018, the strategy (‘A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness’) was published in October 2018. It set out a vision of how we can all play a role in building a more socially connected society.
A key commitment in the strategy is to consider harnessing the power of data to bring people together. We are exploring this through Open Data pilots in collaboration with the Local Government Association. This will see local authorities and service providers capture information about the services people can access in their local community, including activities and support to help them build social connections. This work will help build the evidence base so we can better understand the causes and impacts of loneliness, and develop innovative solutions to tackle it.
The Minister for Digital & the Creative Industries and I recently co-hosted a roundtable to discuss the opportunities for technology to help tackle loneliness. We had some inspiring organisations join us, such as one of the co-founders of Mush. Mush created an app to help mums connect with other new mums in the local area, sharing their challenges and supporting each other during this new phase in their lives. This is an excellent example of how tech can help solve real world problems.
In December 2018, we announced the 126 successful recipients of The Building Connections Fund: the first ever government fund, in partnership with The National Lottery Community Fund and Co-op Foundation, dedicated to supporting England-wide projects tackling loneliness. The fund supports people from all age groups and backgrounds and has been established to enable greater access to befriending services, community arts groups and support schemes. Several of the recipients will be using technology to address social isolation and loneliness in their communities, including projects aimed at older people (Give IT a Go), carers (Bath and North East Somerset Carers Centre), care leavers (Care Leavers Association and Care Experienced Connections) and families of prisoners (Prisoners Abroad).
To encourage further innovation in tech for good, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright, recently announced the government is investing £1 million into a Tech for Good Challenge Prize, aimed at driving social tech innovation in civil society. This Prize will encourage charities, social tech ventures and social enterprises to design solutions aimed at tackling loneliness and social isolation while promoting community cohesion.
This Challenge Prize will bring together different organisations to share their knowledge and stimulate new collaborations and networks to help solve this growing societal affliction which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing as one of the most pressing public health challenges of our time. Learning from this Challenge Prize will help us better understand the potential of technology in bringing people and communities together.
This country is blessed with a world-leading tech sector and a thriving civil society. I would like to encourage even more collaboration between both of these sectors to harness the power of technology to benefit our society.
Technology continues to change the ways in which we live our lives, allowing us to do things from banking in the comfort of our homes to video calling our friends and family across the globe, and it is important we continue to think of ways in which it can help to solve society’s most complex issues. Technology offers unlimited opportunities to build on the admirable efforts of civil society to tackle loneliness, and I am very excited to support the growth of this movement.
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