January 8. The Guardian runs a piece on loneliness over Christmas:
“A volunteer phone call service for older and vulnerable social housing residents and a homemade Christmas food delivery service are among a number of initiatives being singled out for praise as the government announces a £7.5m fund to tackle the epidemic of loneliness in England.”*
It’s the kind of story that makes you want to give up as a writer altogether.
Last Spring I published a book whose penultimate chapter sought to outlaw forever the phrase “epidemic of loneliness” which was then in widespread use and fuelling what Fay Bound Alberti described as a “moral panic”. I reiterated my arguments in sundry interviews and blogs.
At the time it seemed as if history was on my side. The casual use of a medical term as a metaphor for a social condition surely could not survive the arrival of a real epidemic. In reality, severe loneliness was nowhere near as prevalent as was claimed, and it was in no sense an infectious disease. There could be no vaccine against it (though there are continuing reports of attempts to find a pill to reduce loneliness).
But here, eight months on, with Covid running rampant, the phrase leads a story in a reputable newspaper with no attempt at authorial distancing. Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, never the brightest candle on the parliamentary Christmas cake, is elsewhere quoted as saying that the covid pandemic has “created a silent epidemic of loneliness”,** forgetting that such an “epidemic” originally preceded the pandemic. As has been the case throughout, the Office for National Statistics scores for ‘often/always’ lonely have barely moved. The latest figure, released today, covering the Christmas period of 22 December to 3 January, is unchanged at 6%.***
In part it is just lazy journalism by the Guardian, copying across the language of press releases. More broadly it is a legacy of the Government’s initial loneliness strategy published in 2018,**** and the concomitant appointment of the world’s first “loneliness minister”, now Baroness Diana Barran, who is lodged in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport [Who she? Good works on domestic abuse, but perhaps most notable for her father, no less than Count Cosmo Diodono de Bosdari – straight out of The Leopard] Then as now, there is a vast mis-match between ambition and investment. In 2018, £20m was to be spread round various projects to achieve a reconnection of British society. In the new initiative, pocket money is to be spent “bringing society and communities together” in the midst of a crisis where the standard currency for state intervention is counted in billions.
The founding strategy was reviewed in January 2020.***** The Department was still working on measuring the problem, stated to be “somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population” (p. 3), a gap of about eight million lonely people. It reported on various small-scale ventures designed to “celebrate and better support organisations who work tirelessly to help people build stronger connections and develop their sense of belonging.” Looking forward, just as coronavirus reached our shores, the review promised that “The Minister for Civil Society will continue to lead this work and to chair the cross-government Ministerial Group on Tackling Loneliness, ensuring government commitments are delivered and built on so that far fewer people feel alone and disconnected over the next decade.”
There is a certain charm in the survival of this kind of misty goodwill at a time when everything is more desperate and much, much more expensive.
It is also simply a distraction. The main causes of searing loneliness are systemic failures in mental health care, inadequate access to GPs and hospitals especially by those with disabilities, declining community services, both professional and voluntary, and material deprivation including housing. The only short-term counter to these pressures during the pandemic has been greater neighbourhood engagement with the lives of those separated from each other by lockdown and shielding, and increasingly sophisticated use of the connecting technologies of communication.
In the short term, the balance sheet has yet to be drawn up. Beyond the pandemic, the solutions will only be found in large-scale structural reforms.
****HM Government, A connected society A strategy for tackling loneliness – laying the foundations for change (London: Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (October 2018).