Combat loneliness with ‘social prescribing’, says Theresa May
Article written by Sarah Marsh for The Guardian on October 14th 2018
Doctors will be encouraged to refer patients to art groups, cookery classes and other activities
GPs in England will be able to refer people to take part in social activities such as cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups to combat loneliness, the prime minister has said.
Instead of offering medication, doctors will be encouraged to use “social prescribing” to refer lonely patients to activities that could help tackle feelings of isolation.
Launching the first government loneliness strategy, Theresa May said social prescriptions would reduce demand on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life. She plans for the new approach to be in place by 2023. In addition, the prime minister announced an extra £1.8m for community projects such as community cafes, art spaces or gardens.
May also paid tribute to the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who campaigned to end loneliness before her death. “Cox was absolutely right to highlight the critical importance of this growing social injustice, which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” May said.
She added: “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.”
May described the strategy as the beginning of a long and far-reaching social change in England. “It is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes,” she said.
The government finalised its strategy to combat loneliness, which charities, councils and health experts say has increased in recent years as a result of lengthening lifespans, cuts to social care services and families becoming more spread out geographically.
Loneliness is linked to illnesses including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Her words were echoed by Age UK, which last month said loneliness was a looming major public health concern, which could have a detrimental affect on health and wellbeing. More than 2 million people over 50 will be lonely by 2025-26, a 49% increase on the 1.36 million who were socially isolated in 2015-16, according to projections by the charity.
The government’s first loneliness strategy was drawn up after Tracey Crouch, the world’s first minister for loneliness, embraced research set up by Cox, which found that young people can be affected more than older people.
Crouch said the strategy aimed to bring together health services, businesses, councils, charities and community groups to help people build connections to lead happier and healthier lives. “Loneliness is a serious issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds and it is right that we tackle it head on,” she said. “Our strategy sets out a powerful vision for addressing this generational challenge.”
Speaking on behalf of the Jo Cox Foundation, Cox’s sister Kim Leadbeater said she was delighted by the strategy. “The work on loneliness has been a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy,” she said. “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.”
May also announced the first employer pledge to tackle loneliness in the workplace, which has the support of businesses such as Sainsbury’s and the civil service. Postal workers will be encouraged to check in with lonely people on their delivery rounds in a scheme with Royal Mail in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby.
The new funding builds on £20m announced in June to help charities and community groups expand their programmes.