This afternoon I was honoured to attend the launch of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.
In her first year as an MP, Jo saw first hand how loneliness was a problem that affected people of all ages and in all situations. Undeterred by the scale of the issue, she was determined to do something practical to help. It was a typical piece of resolve from Jo, and further proof of the loss we all suffered last year when she was murdered.
I’m so proud of Jo today, and of her friends, Labour’s Rachel Reeves and Conservative Seema Kennedy, who have worked tirelessly to ensure the commission she planned became a reality.
The Commission will look at what government and business at all levels can do to combat loneliness, but it wants to do more than simply highlight the problem. It wants to provide a practical solution. Using the slogan Start a Conversation and hashtag #HappyToChat, it aims to inspire people to look for their own response to the problem – can they talk to a neighbour? Can they look up an old friend?
A few years ago, I wrote that loneliness is a modern epidemic that shames our society. The stats back then were alarming – and it’s clear from the information shared by the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission today that things haven’t improved. A staggering 9 million of us are always or often lonely. Breaking the stats down, that includes 24% of parents. 50% of disabled people. Shockingly, 8 of 10 carers. It’s a huge problem, especially given the links that have been unearthed between feelings of loneliness and poor mental and physical health. One study shows it can be as damaging to our health as smoking.
In that 2014 article, I mentioned Alan Forester. I said that if I could hand out OBE’s, Alan would be top of my list. He works for Meals on Wheels in my constituency of West Bromwich East. It’s a crucial service – not just because of the warm food he brings to the pensioners on his round, but because Alan’s visit is the sole point of human contact some of them will have all day.
As part of my own commitment to Start A Conversation, I got back in touch with Alan.
The picture he painted was bleak. Alan said:
“Some of the people we deliver to don't see another human all day. They're on their own. Their families have moved away or just don't bother with them. You've got an NHS that's on its knees, cuts to social care - people are just forgotten. It's sad.
We just spend as much time with them as we can. I visit between 35 and 40 people every day, between eleven and three. We get to know them, and they get to know and trust us.
The people I visit become like family to me. But it's hard, really hard. Loneliness is a killer, it really is."
Jo was determined to make a difference. We must all take inspiration from her. Please, get involved in the commission, share your ideas, Start a Conversation.
If you’re a Labour party member and have done anything to tackle loneliness in your community, I'd be really interested in hearing from you. Can I help? Let me know.