Paul McNamee: Get prevention right and we will transform lives of the lonely

The government must focus on prevention if we are to tackle widespread loneliness

Loneliness is a public health issue.

The great irony of the digital age is that people have never been more connected. But people have never reported feeling more lonely. The mental health effects of isolation can be devastating.

The effects on communities and society as a whole are corrosive. Official government figures say that 200,000 older people living in the UK have not had a conversation with a friend, relative or anyone they know for over a month. That is a devastating statistic.

Last week, the Government unveiled Britain’s first ever loneliness strategy, albeit focused on England. It’s wide-ranging.

The measures vary from postal delivery workers checking on isolated folk during their rounds, to GPs prescribing social activities such as dance classes for those who present as lonely. There is an investment of £1.8m over the next five years. 

The change for everybody will be far-reaching and profound

It was murdered MP Jo Cox who had first attempted to deal, on a national level, with the scourge of loneliness and the PM paid tribute as she rolled out the scheme.

So far, all proper order.

Except for something Malorie Blackman, the former Children’s Laureate, said. Following a parliamentary debate on libraries, Blackman tweeted: “This isn’t rocket science. There would be less need for a Minister for Loneliness if the government gave local authorities enough money to fund the public library service properly, complete with qualified librarians.”

It’s a reductive argument, but there is a big amount of truth in it. And it burrows down into something we at The Big Issue have been banging on about for some time. Prevention. If investment goes in early, the results can prevent the thing we’re keen to avoid happening in the first place.

Two years ago, writing in The Big Issue, Theresa May backed our prevention message. We can no longer tackle symptoms, she said, “we need to put prevention at the heart of a new approach”.

This marked a key shift, and a very welcome one. But it hasn’t happened. The new dawn has not been bright.

We push for this prevention approach across government. Big Issue founder John Bird and his team in parliament lobby consistently for a cross-party approach putting prevention at the heart of policy. It’s been a hard road. 

It’s almost as if something else has come along and so sucked all the focus and time from government that the intention to really take off with the prevention model had to be set aside. As has so much more of good governance.

But rest assured, we’re not going to let this one drop. We agree with Malorie Blackman about the incredible and positive benefits of libraries, the societal balm they provide, that goes way beyond simply being book repositories. 

We will make noise about that.

And we will also remain clear-sighted with our prevention message. 

If we get that right, the change for everybody will be far-reaching and profound.