The Big Interview: Loneliness Minister Tracey Crouch on the ‘phenomenal’ challenge ahead

Tracey Crouch, the newly appointed loneliness minister, in her office in Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport''''Photo by Geoff Pugh/REX/Shutterstock
Tracey Crouch, the newly appointed loneliness minister, in her office in Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport''''Photo by Geoff Pugh/REX/Shutterstock
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Four years on from the launch of the Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, The Yorkshire Post speaks exclusively to the newly appointed Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch

LIKE nine out of ten women, after the birth of her first child two years ago, MP Tracey Crouch felt the twingeing ache of loneliness for the first time.

It is an experience many people - from all walks of life - can relate to, and one she will use in her new role as the country’s first ever Minister for Loneliness.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post exclusively as it marks the fourth anniversary of the Loneliness: The Hidden Epidemic campaign, the MP tells how work has already begun implementing a host of actions aimed at tackling loneliness, after the Government accepted in full the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness last month, and speaks of her own experience of loneliness, which affects 9m people across the UK.

“I think we all have moments of feeling isolated or alone,” Ms Crouch said. “I’m a relatively new mum and despite the fact that I have a wonderful partner and a close network of family and friends there are always times as a new mum when you do feel quite isolated.

“I have been very open in the past about suffering from depression and anxiety and the Jo Cox Commission highlighted that people who suffer from a mental health condition can sometimes feel quite isolated as part of their condition.

“There is no one-size-fits-all solution and I think it’s really important to stress that because loneliness is quite subjective and therefore you have to have flexibility in some of the solutions. Not everything is going to suit every person.

“So, the way I dealt with feeling isolated when my other half was at work and I was at home with the baby was to go out and do some exercise, obviously taking the baby with me. That’s not something that everybody would want to do. I didn’t want to go to the mother and baby groups, whereas others would be more comfortable with that.

“Because there’s not one single problem, there’s not one single solution.”

Part of her “phenomenal” challenge over the coming weeks and months will be to bring in a metric to measure loneliness and to develop a cross-Government strategy that will be used to tackle loneliness in people of all ages.

But why her? With growing evidence of loneliness as a health issue, there was an element of surprise when Theresa May announced her first Minister for Loneliness would come not from the newly-named Department for Health and Social Care, but from Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

“There was a recognition that part of my portfolio on Civil Society already crosses many Whitehall departments and has real facilities for what the Commission’s recommendations were looking at, i.e. that cross-departmental approach to tackling loneliness,” she said.

“But I hope as well that it’s a reflection of what I have done before I was a minister. I did quite a lot of work on the loneliness campaign, albeit for older people. I was heavily involved in some of the Parliamentary activity through Contact the Elderly, Silver Line and things like that - so I’m not necessarily new to the issue. As a minister I have that greater opportunity to look at it across all departments and actually, through a completely different demographic as well because in the past, I think there was a very heavy, and understandable, focus on older people.

“But what the Jo Cox Commission found was significant evidence of loneliness within all parts of society.”

Since 2014, when this newspaper began raising awareness of loneliness, the issue has become increasingly under the spotlight - but it is only now that the Government has pledged to make a concerted effort to tackle it.

Ms Crouch said: “People are beginning to talk about it a lot more. We’re beginning to recognise the health impact of loneliness and therefore why it’s important to remove the stigma around talking about loneliness or saying that you’re lonely or isolated in order to ensure that we have better physical and mental wellbeing. With that, they will continue to contribute to their community and society, but also reap personal benefits from us being able to tackle that loneliness.

“The campaign that The Yorkshire Post has ran in terms of raising it up the agenda is enormously important.

“All partners, and that’s not just Government, central and local, but businesses and community groups as well, must recognise that they have a role to play in combating this and they will actually benefit from there being less isolation and loneliness in their areas.

“Making sure that we have coordinated understanding and approach to tackling isolation is one of the great challenges and that’s what I will be doing over the coming months and hopefully years in looking how we tackle this. We are not going to be able to solve this problem overnight, or indeed within the next 12 months, but we can start by setting out a framework of how we can have a proper coordinated approach.”

She is also looking at how a Government fund can support initiatives working on loneliness.

Ms Crouch said: “There has to be some funding behind this. We’ve talked about different types of funds - we haven’t put a figure on that fund, in part because the Jo Cox Commission want to help us co-design the fund, so we can’t put a figure on it until we know exactly what it will do. Secondly, there will be different types of funding so we’re looking at an innovation funds and looking at seed funding. But there will also be other funding opportunities in other departments.”

And so the work begins - but it will have to be juggled with her other responsibilities. This weekend she is in America for the Superbowl, and later this month, South Korea for the Winter Olympics.

She has already began talking to the Social Care Minister so they can work together in developing the Government’s loneliness strategy - one she’s keen is not ignored.

“I’m really keen that it’s not just a strategy for the sake of it,” she said. I’m not in this business to basically have a document that then gets put on a shelf and forgotten. I really want to make sure that what we do will really be the foundation for future work - because this is a generational challenge and I want to make sure that everything we do beyond that is building on those foundations.”

Tracey Crouch’s top tips for tackling loneliness:

- “Bring an old hobby back, things you used to enjoy but for various reasons no longer do, like learning to paint or gardening.”

- “Going along to a sports club or physical activity like a Zumba class is great for making new friends and stay fit”.

- “And making new connections. Volunteering or making new connections can improve your mental health but it’s also a fantastic way to meet people.”

Who is Tracey Crouch?

Tracey Crouch was elected as Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford in 2010, and became Minister for Sport and Civil Society in May 2015.

She grew up in Kent but was educated at the University of Hull, where she studied law and politics.

She is a keen sports fan, an FA-qualified football coach, and supporter of Leeds Rhinos.

In February 2016 she gave birth to son Freddie.

On January 16 this year she was given the remit of Minister for Loneliness, after Theresa May announced it was accepting the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness in full. Her task will be to lead a cross-Government group to drive action on loneliness across and keep it firmly on the agenda.