By Rachel Reeves MP and Seema Kennedy
Long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, Britain was at the forefront of the battle against another silent epidemic ravaging our communities. Loneliness and enforced social isolation are nothing new, but they too can kill and have devastating social and economic consequences.
Today, for the first time, everyone is having to consider what it means to be cut off from all human contact.
Fortunately, many of us are able to share our quarantine with family or friends, but we are all aware as never before of the plight of those who literally speak to no one for days at a time. Not just now, but always. Every week of every month of every year.
Just when we need something to be thankful for, the good news is that in confronting coronavirus we are strengthening the societal bonds that are so vital to our health and well-being even at the best of times.
Three years ago, as co-chairs of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, we identified enforced social isolation as a chronic illness, largely hidden from view but causing untold misery and costing the economy millions in lost capacity. Our report turbo-charged awareness of the issue, as Jo had intended when she established the Commission before her death. We secured the world’s first Loneliness Minister and a government-wide strategy to tackle it.
That increased awareness prepared us well for what we now confront. The way individuals and neighbourhoods have responded across the country in recent days has been heart-warming. While too many of the headlines focus on examples of selfishness and irresponsibility, the vast majority of people have been responding with compassion and empathy.
The reaction has shown the very best of us. We need to bottle it and store it with care. Because when the virus is defeated, as surely it will be, the epidemic of loneliness will still be with us.
To that end the Jo Cox Foundation, along with partners with expertise in loneliness and mental health, are today coming together in a new Connection Coalition. It will be a unique hub to coordinate efforts to maintain strong and meaningful social connections. This will help both to protect the health and well-being of those most at risk and crucially build strong community relationships that will endure beyond the immediate crisis.
Many of Britain’s leading charities and innovation and technology providers are already on board with more joining all the time. It will be an open-source movement offering mutual support to reinforce connectivity at all levels at a time of physical distancing.
We need to generate a more open inclusive dialogue, to share and learn from the innovations taking place at local level and to harness better the power of technology. Our response to this crisis has the potential to create dynamic, effective solutions to an issue which affects millions of people.
Initiatives of this kind make a real difference by creating the support structures that can enable millions of people to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.
In her short time in parliament, Jo taught us two things above all else. That loneliness doesn’t discriminate and that across and between communities we have more in common than that which divides us.
We were proud to take forward Jo’s work after her murder. The challenges she highlighted are not going to go away. But from the cauldron of today’s shared experience are being forged new and stronger tools to equip us better than ever before to meet them.
In many ways Britain will be a different country as a result of what we are going through right now. It is for all of us to decide how we want to shape that future. The one thing we all have aplenty is time for reflection. We should use it well.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West. Seema Kennedy was Conservative MP for South Ribble. They were co-chairs of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission.