The U.K. has appointed a minister of loneliness to tackle what Prime Minister Theresa May calls a “sad reality of modern life” for many U.K. citizens.
May announced the position Wednesday, appointing current Minister for Sport and Civil Society Tracey Crouch.
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,” said May.
According to government figures, more than 9 million people in the U.K. “always or often feel lonely” and “around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.”
An increasing body of research has found that feelings of social isolation can have profound health effects; according to a government commission, loneliness is as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily.
“Loneliness can be triggered by a life event, such as a bereavement or becoming a parent, with certain groups, such as young people and carers, particularly at risk,” said Crouch.
A commission on loneliness, which was set up by former Member of Parliament Jo Cox before she was murdered, had called for a minister to be appointed to spearhead the government’s strategy. Cox was 41 years old when she was killed by a white supremacist in 2016, in the lead-up to the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union.
“This is an issue that Jo cared passionately about and we will honour her memory by tackling it, helping the millions of people across the UK who suffer from loneliness,” May said.
The government says it has started developing a “cross-government strategy on loneliness in England” and is working with the Office of National Statistics on ways to measure loneliness.
“One of the awful things about losing Jo is knowing how much difference she would have made in the world,” said Cox’s husband, Brendan, in a tweet. “When the kids wake up this morning I’m going to tell them how — even though she’s not here — she’s still making the world a better place.”