A new attempt to measure the wellbeing of the British population has discovered that only 58% of Britons feel connected to people in their community, and one in eight do not have a close friend that they could rely on in a personal crisis.

The study, compiled by the Office for National Statistics, compared these results to other European countries and found that the UK population were some of the most disconnected across the continent: countries like Cyprus, Romania, Croatia, Latvia and Spain were the ones scoring most highly.

This research paints a bit of a mixed picture. It would appear that – as a nation – we are good at taking part in social activities and family life, but our society is slowly becoming less cohesive and connected. Eight out of 10 respondents said that they were satisfied with their family life, and the majority of us are still happy with our social lives and take part in volunteering and sport activities. A leading article also in The Times suggested that loneliness (particularly in older age) is in part linked to the country’s long tradition of nuclear families that are now increasingly scattered.

Supporters of the Campaign to End Loneliness will already know of the information in The Times leader article, that loneliness – and the absence of support networks – can have a really harmful effect on our mental and physical health. Lonely and isolated adults are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia. They are also more likely to smoke, drink too much and eat less fruit and vegetables. We need to act to protect our health, wellbeing and happiness – particularly in older age.

What can be done?

Family members, friends and neighbours are often called upon to reach out to older people, and each other, to combat loneliness and isolation. Our communities are vital, but they are only part of the solution.

As Tracey Robbins, Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness Programme Manager from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says, “our communities are a resource but we still need to resource this resource”.

And there are a number of ways to resource communities to better tackle loneliness. To begin with, although today’s research rings alarm bells, we still need better, more localised data to show us the geographical areas where people are particularly lacking social networks or at risk of loneliness, so we can better target limited resources. This information could be collected locally, but loneliness is a national problem, and national leadership is required to make sure that the problem is better understood across the whole population. For a country that has such a problem with community cohesion – according to today’s snapshot – to say that we don’t know where our loneliest people are, and we’re not going to find out, is plain lazy.

But when we also know that ignoring these people is not only a moral outrage but will rack up health problems and behaviours in the future, it is also financial recklessness.

National government must bite the bullet and prioritise the work that has stalled to put a robust measure in place that will tell us now, and over time, where those who are lonely and at risk of loneliness are.

Local authorities – including the new Clinical Commissioning Groups – can also show leadership by working in partnership with the voluntary sector which is already building communities around older citizens. And the range of their endeavours is immense: you could consider befriending (such as Tower Hamlets Friends and Neighbours), a whole range of interest groups and classes (like those run by the U3A), start a rugby visits for older men with the Royal Voluntary Service, join a telephone book club at Independent Age or consider a community development programme like Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness. The list could go on.

Loneliness – and our communities – are complex and unique to us all. So we need a rich, well-informed response. This will require better data – a national, annual measure on loneliness at a county level or lower is a crucial first step in national policy – a step that will support local communities and better target existing resources.

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