STRICTLY Come Dancing stars and the Prime Minister joined forces to throw a Downing Street party to raise awareness of loneliness at Christmas.
More than 20 volunteers and old people from Yorkshire attended the Downing Street bash this afternoon with David Cameron, who had a surprise up his sleeve by inviting the finalists of hit BBC show Strictly Come Dancing to join in the fun. The event was a chance to thank the Yorkshire Post for it’s Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, which aims to highlight and tackle social isolation in Yorkshire and also for Mr Cameron to raise the issue of loneliness by highlighting great examples of community work in the North of England. The Prime Minister said: “Christmas is a time that should be filled with joy and celebration – not loneliness and isolation. And yet there are too many people, often older people, who will spend this festive season alone. “Whether it’s popping round for a chat, making a cup of tea, donating a gift, or just keeping in touch, you can’t underestimate what a big difference small, caring acts and companionship can make to someone who is on their own.” Among the guests were volunteers and people who use companionship services, lunch clubs and activities run by the Royal Voluntary Service, Contact the Elderly, the Barnsley Rockley Rotary Club and Friendship Lunches in Crayke, North Yorkshire. After a welcoming rendition of carols by the London Welsh Choir as the guests walked through the famous black door of Number 10, a party lunch was served up in the state dining room of smoked salmon, roast turkey and Christmas pudding. To the surprise of the guests, the stars of Strictly Come Dancing arrived, with Aljaz Skorjanec demonstrating a beautiful fox-trot and the charismatic Kevin Clifton taking guests for a twirl on the dance floor. Sara Taylor, 84 from Barnsley, was one of the first on her feet to be whisked around the room by professional dancer Anton du Beke. The keen ballroom and Latin dancer, said: “My husband was a wonderful dancer and I haven’t had a partner since since he died. I was one of the first up to dance as I know the steps.” Mr du Beke, who arrived with his dance partner, the TV presenter Katie Derham, said there was so much enthusiasm from the guests from Yorkshire. “Everyone was so lovely. I could have stayed all day,” he said. Also attending were a group of volunteers and service users from the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) in Barnsley, including Ann Plant, who has been a befriender for the service for two years. Mrs Plant, 69, of Darton in Barnsley, said: “It has been a great privilege to be here. I’ll be 70 soon and it has been a great opportunity - I have never done anything like it in my life. “I asked Mr Cameron to sign a card for a lady who is 90, and a Conservative supporter since she was 20 years old, and he did so beautifully.” Tina Shann, 60, has used the befriending service for two years after feeling incredibly lonely after the death of her husband Malcolm. “It had got to the stage where I didn’t want to go out anymore,” she said. “When I found the RVS I was really low - but they have changed my life. They deserve every bit of recognition.” Natasha Mort, RVS operations manager for North and West Yorkshire, said: “Our volunteers do so much without any thanks, so to have an opportunity to show what they do is amazing. “All of our service users really benefit from what they off and it’s the volunteers that are the real stars of the RVS. To come down and celebrate with them has been an amazing experience.” Strictly and Eastenders star Kellie Bright also took a turn on the dance floor with 80-year-old John Lees, who attends the monthly tea parties in Barnsley. He said: “It was the highlight of the day - I put John Travolta in his place! “I was overwhelmed to get the invite. When Kathy told me we were off to Number 10, I thought she meant a new restaurant in Barnsley.” Phyllis Wilkinson, 71, attended with her husband Brian, 78, who has dementia, and the pair also attend tea parties in Barnsley which give them both a break. She said: “It has been marvellous today. We have enjoyed every minute. “The tea parties are so important as it’s a chance for Brian to get out of the house and interact with people, but it’s great for me too.” Doris Woods, 86, from Mirfield, a member of the Batley group of Contact the Elderley said: “Since I joined Contact the Elderly my life has changed completely. I have met so many lovely people I wouldn’t have met before. “Today has been amazing. It was lovely of David Cameron to invite us. He came round talking to all of us and was so caring.” Micky Johnson, 87, from Easingwold, attends the Yorkshire Post-inspired Friendship Lunches and is also a member of a friendship group in York. She said: “Our group is open to all ages as loneliness does not only affect the elderly. “I think all members of the community should look out for each other and ask people who are on their own if they’d like a visit or a phone call. I’m a member of lots of voluntary organisations and it has kept me young.” Mr Cameron picked out two organisations in Yorkshire who are working with the elderly for high praise and said he was impressed at the ways in which communities in Yorkshire are tackling this important issue. He said: “Take Sasha and Michael Ibbotson as an example. They were inspired by the Yorkshire Post’s loneliness campaign to set up their Friendship Lunches, which have now been rolled out to six other pubs. “And take Kathy Markick as another example. She developed a What’s on Where guide for older people to come together and engage with their community.” Stagecoach East Midlands Trains and Grand Central kindly sponsored the travel of many of the guests from Yorkshire to London to attend the event.