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What has the Minister for Loneliness been doing during the pandemic?

Diana Barran is the third person to hold the title since it was established in 2018 – we ask her how the British government has approached loneliness in a year of social isolation

If you thought you were lonely in 2018, or again in 2019, then you had no idea what was waiting for you in 2020. As you know, dear reader, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown everyone’s life out of whack, thrusting us into lockdown after lockdown, isolating us from our friends and family. And, unsurprisingly, this has had an impact on our sense of loneliness.

A recent ONS report found that, between October 2020 and February 2021, 7.2 per cent of the adult population said they felt lonely “often” or “always”, with young people and unemployed people tending to have higher rates of loneliness. Students have been hit particularly hard, with over a quarter reporting that they’ve felt lonely during the pandemic. 40 per cent have even said they’ve considered dropping out of university, with many citing isolation and lack of support as the reason.

Alongside quarantines, social distancing, and the never-ending torture of working from home, loneliness has been exacerbated by the shutdown of public institutions, the rising death toll of people’s loved ones, and mass redundancies. This is all against the age old backdrop of insecure housing, a broken mental health system, a corrupt Tory government, and rising xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic hate crimes – the list goes on.

In an attempt to tackle the increasing crisis of loneliness, in 2018, the government appointed the world’s first ever Minister for Loneliness, following the findings of Jo Cox’s Loneliness Commission Report. Since its establishment, the role has been held by Conservatives Tracey Crouch, Mims Davies, and now House of Lords member Diana Barran. 

Three years ago, in an interview with Dazed, Crouch denied any links between the Tory’s policies and the epidemic of loneliness, and didn’t offer much insight into what the government was actually planning on doing to enact change. Today, in an interview with Dazed, Barran doesn’t offer much more about the role, nor what she’s been doing in it during the pandemic, but does at least admit that the government isn’t blameless. Baby steps.

What were the biggest achievements of the position before you joined?

Diana Barran: Really getting loneliness on the map as a major policy issue. We were the first country in the world to have a Minister for Loneliness. That first step of saying, ‘This matters, and as a government we have a part to play in addressing loneliness’ was very important. And then attached to that was just being tremendously human about it, recognising that it affects very many of us, and that it’s something really difficult to talk about, and then starting the long road to reducing the stigma around it.

Your predecessor Mims Davies launched the ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’ campaign in 2019. Have you seen any tangible results from that?

Diana Barran: We’ve got some data on engagement with that campaign, which I think was – unsurprisingly – almost tenfold last year. But, importantly, (the number of) people who were too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about the fact they were lonely, and the percentage of people who say that they’d know where to go to find help has gone up. So, we’ve got some good evidence of the impact of that, but these things need to be a long commitment. 

One thing Mims was very active in was working with the Department of Health to encourage the use of social prescribing. So, if you or I go to our GP and say we’re feeling anxious or lonely, instead of giving us medication, they ask us what we enjoy doing – swimming, running, whatever it is – and the prescription is to help enable you to do something that you enjoy, which alleviates your loneliness.

And what have you been working on since taking on the role?

Diana Barran: Obviously my time doing this has been very influenced by the pandemic. Everyone is (more acutely) aware of loneliness and how it’s impacted every one of us (over the last year), either because we have felt lonely ourselves or because we’ve worried about someone who we care about being lonely. What I’ve tried to lead on is making loneliness something that each one of us can make a difference to. I suppose we’ve really tried to focus on giving leadership through the ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’ campaign, encouraging people to act – and giving them the confidence to act – as well as providing funding to charities and groups around the countries to help address loneliness for all age groups, ethnicities, abilities, and disabilities during this last year.

“Everyone is (more acutely) aware of loneliness and how it’s impacted every one of us (over the last year), either because we have felt lonely ourselves or because we’ve worried about someone who we care about being lonely”

A recent ONS report found that areas with more young people and areas with higher rates of unemployment have higher rates of loneliness. This is compounded by the fact that two-thirds of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic are under 25. What is the government doing to specifically target loneliness among young people?

Diana Barran: We take the issue around young people very seriously. One of the things we’ve done over the last year is put together a network of organisations (to tackle loneliness), and they worked on a number of different things, including older people, younger people, and place-based interactions. We’ll be publishing their recommendations shortly, including about young people, some of which fall to others and some of which fall to the government. 

Can you share specific actions that will directly target young people?

Diana Barran: The stigma point is really important with young people. I had a call with a group of young people talking about loneliness, and they said they would feel more comfortable discussing mental health issues than loneliness, as they felt there was more shame and stigma associated with loneliness. In terms of funding, we’ve funded a number of groups that support young people. One in particular that stays with me is that we funded Home Start, which supports young mothers (who are feeling isolated after) having a new baby and (being unable) to socialise in the way that they normally would.

Over a quarter of students have reported feeling lonely often or always during the pandemic. Where do students come into the government’s loneliness strategy?

Diana Barran: I’ve heard loud and clear what an unbelievably difficult time students have had. I think that when we can get back to some sort of normality, that will massively reduce, if not solve, a lot of the circumstantial loneliness that students have experienced over the last year. I’m not saying it’s a magic wand, but we had a set of circumstances that have rendered students particularly isolated, and those are now reversing.

How can the government begin to tackle loneliness without looking inward at its own actions that increase loneliness?

Diana Barran: That’s a good question, and we could have a whole seminar on it. The thing with cross-cutting issues is that (you have) to get the attention of another department. You can look at housing policy and see how that impacts, or transport policy – and we are working with the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government on some of these specific issues. We’re trying to weave (loneliness) through. But one has to do some pretty tough prioritisation because loneliness cuts across everything – if you spread yourself too thin, you get nowhere.

The government has made a number of last minute decisions during the pandemic, including announcing an extension to the furlough scheme the day before it was due to end, meaning lots of people were made redundant unnecessarily, and announcing a Tier 4 lockdown in London just before Christmas. How do you think these decisions have impacted rates of loneliness and isolation?

Diana Barran: I’m not sure I completely accept your narrative on last minute decisions. As you appreciate, it’s been an unbelievably difficult situation to plan for, and actually I think things like the furlough scheme have been seen as very generous, and rightly so. I’m not aware of any work that’s tried to quantify the impacts of those, and I think it would be impossible to tease that out because there’s so many moving parts.

We’re living in an increasingly divided society – how will the government aim to bring people together to prevent loneliness?

Diana Barran: The jury is out on the impact of the pandemic on division, because actually I would argue that we saw one of the biggest outpourings of generosity, and millions of people volunteering informally and formally to support their neighbours. The optimist in me hopes that the sense of connection that was so acute in all of us this time last year, when our normal connections were disrupted and brutaly ruptured, is a good thing for rebuilding some of those links and finding out that, actually we have an awful lot in common.