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Britain appoints 'minister for loneliness' to tackle social isolation

One in ten people said they felt lonely “always or often," and hundreds of thousands of elderly people said they hadn’t spoken to a friend or relative in weeks.

LONDON — It sounds like a character from a dystopian novel, but Britain has created a “minister for loneliness” to tackle modern public health problems associated with social isolation.

The government said Wednesday it appointed Tracey Crouch after research showed as many as one in ten people felt lonely “always or often” and that hundreds of thousands of elderly people hadn’t spoken to a friend or relative in the past month.

Crouch, whose official title is Minister for Sport and Civil Society, will devise a national strategy to tackle isolation across all ages, and find ways of measuring alienation in official statistics.

"We know that there is a real impact of social isolation and loneliness on people, on their physical and mental well-being but also on other aspects in society and we want to tackle this challenge,” Crouch said.

In the United States, approximately 42.6 million adults aged over 45 reported suffering from chronic loneliness in a major 2010 study by the AARP.

The most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined, the American Psychological Association heard last summer.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, told the organization that research indicated social isolation and living alone had “a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death … one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.”

Announcing Crouch’s appointment as “new ministerial lead for loneliness,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said: "I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones, people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

Image: Tracey Crouch
Tracey CrouchGeoff Pugh / Rex Features via AP file

The role was the main recommendation in a 2017 report commissioned in memory of Jo Cox, a lawmaker and mother of two who was murdered in the street in 2016 by a neo-Nazi terrorist.

"Jo Cox recognized the scale of loneliness across the country and dedicated herself to doing all she could to help those affected,” May said.

Cox’s widower, Brendan Cox, tweeted early Wednesday: “One of the awful things about losing Jo is knowing how much difference she would have made in the world. When the kids wake up this morning I’m going to tell them how — even though she’s not here — she’s still making the world a better place.”

However, there was some criticism of the appointment on social media, with users pointing out a link between loneliness and government cuts to community services such as public libraries, day care centers and community halls.