HER appointment as Loneliness Minister, in the wake of the resignation of Tracey Crouch, came less than a month after the Prime Minister launched the Government’s long-awaited Loneliness Strategy.
To some, that announcement, which included the pledge that all GPs would be able to use social prescribing to help reconnect isolated patients with their communities and an extra £1.8m to transform under used community spaces, could have marked a chance to rest on the laurels of a job well done.
But for Mims Davies it was a chance to tackle “one of the biggest challenges that our country has”, and she’s determined to that, head on.
In the few short months she has been in place as Minister for Sport and Civil Society, which has included the loneliness brief since January last year, she has announced the first 126 beneficiaries from the Government's £11.5m Building Connections Fund, including 11 projects in Yorkshire worth a combined £844,228, and appeared before the All Party Parliamentary Group on Loneliness to describe how she will take the agenda forward.
But with the Government already seeming to take such committed action in the wake of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness landmark report in December 2017, which prompted Theresa May to appoint to world’s first Loneliness Minister a month later - and a preoccupation with Brexit - how exactly will she do that?
Part of the answer, and one that she is already actively exploring, is the potential of technology, she told the Yorkshire Post. A recent round table with digital minister Margot James and tech firms from “the dating world to the new mums world”, identified the “huge opportunities” tech has to offer, she said.
“What we were talking about was making sure that people who are lonely are not being seen as potential targets, that there are places that people can go where they can get support and help but they are not going to be seen as a good opportunity,” she said.
Apps like Mush, which she described as a “Gumtree for new mums” where you can go from “being online conversationalists to being actually able to meet up in person” could be key, she said, as she described the feelings of loneliness she could remember “not terribly fondly” from her own time as a new mum when “no one marks your homework” and you go from a career to a place where “getting up and having a shower sometimes is a really big achievement”.
“Sometimes you can feel quite isolated but there’s someone down the road or round the corner that is in exactly the same place,” Ms Davies said.
“Tech has challenges, but has huge opportunities, so we’re going to be working in the department to make sure that there is those opportunities, whether it’s through the funding of tech that we know can make a difference to people who feel isolated, or something else.”
Ms Davies’ personal experiences of loneliness, both through her work as a constituency MP and her own life, are also helping her to shape her way through the brief. She spent years helping her mother care for her father, who spent 25 years at home in need of support after an accident at work.
“Sometimes you have to look back in your own life to find out if there was a time when you felt isolated, when you felt that the gears had changed and what did you do about it. Some people are resilient enough and well supported to deal with that, but some people are not,” she said.
“I helped my mum as she got more aged and then ended up at a various points with them and my young children - and it was then that I recognised that my mum felt very isolated, as she didn’t have the respite.
“My dad had sight problems, so by the end wasn’t able to be left alone at home. And I think that he felt very isolated too. He got involved in art projects with Headway to get out and about and met people, and she had a bit of a break.
“Sometimes you’re in it and you don’t realise that you are, and I think that the whole campaign that we’re responding to and through my ministerial brief, just allows people to recognise that.”
The increased awareness of the loneliness issue in recent years, she said, including the work of the Yorkshire Post, which she described as “leading lights” on the topic, had made it “much easier” for people to admit to the need for more support.
Ms Davies said: “We are getting past the stigma of being able to say I feel quite lonely. And while its important to be aware of mental health challenges, we need to make sure that people are aware that there is a separation [with loneliness], and actually there are different ways of unlocking these challenges, whether it be getting out there and volunteering to reconnect with people within the community, or whether it’s going to the GP because actually it’s broader support that you need.”
And while the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling loneliness is “an absolute priority”, she believes there is a moral duty on us all to look out for those around us who may be lonely - including signing more businesses up to the Employer Pledge to help prevent loneliness.
“Your job might be all-encompassing, and everything around you might be all-encompassing, but there’s a little bit more to life,” she said. “I was very lucky to be there for my parents at a really difficult time and it’s something that I don’t regret.
“So I know that the more that we’ve got employers signed up to an understanding that there’s more challenges that people face in their lives and they need to be there to answer those challenges, the better. And actually, if they can work a bit more flexibly, if they can there at the hospital and doctors’ appointments, if they can get away early once a month on a Friday to go and see mum or dad who may be far away, that really makes a difference to people feeling connected, but also, if you look at it at a purely economic level, actually that will increase our productivity and make us all generally feel a little bit happier.
“We need to put our heads above the parapet and say what our challenges are, to be able to say, that actually there are people in my life that I care about and I would like to give them more time right now because I might not get that time again.
“The more we talk about this, and the more everyone recognises that there is a responsibility within their own community or family to try and make people feel more connected and less isolated, then I think we’ll end up with everyone feeling a bit less stressed and feeling like they’re getting a bit more positivity about every factor in their lives.”
WHO IS MIMS DAVIES?
Mims Davies was elected as Conservative MP for Eastleigh, Hampshire, in 2015. In November she was appointed as Minister for Sport and Civil Society, which includes loneliness, after the resignation of Tracey Crouch in opposition delays to cut the maximum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals.
A former journalist and communications officer, she studied politics at Swansea University and is a mother of two.