LONDON (NYTIMES) - Since Britain voted to leave the European Union more than a year ago, Europeans have mockingly said that the decision will result in an isolated, lonely island nation.
But Britain, in fact, already has a serious problem with loneliness, research has found. More than nine million people in the country often or always feel lonely, according to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
The issue prompted Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday (Jan 17) to appoint a minister for loneliness.
"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life," Mrs May said in a statement.
"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."
Mr Mark Robinson, chief officer of Age UK, Britain's largest charity working with older people, warned that the problem could kill.
"It's proven to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, but it can be overcome and needn't be a factor in older people's lives," he said.
A former United States surgeon general, Dr Vivek Murthy, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review last year arguing that loneliness needed addressing in the workplace.
It could be associated, he wrote, "with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and anxiety". The British report was commissioned by the Red Cross in partnership with the Co-op, a cooperative supermarket chain, and published by the Cox commission in December.
The prime minister announced on Wednesday that Tracey Crouch, who is the under-secretary for sport and civil society in the culture ministry, would lead a government-wide group to build on Cox's legacy and establish policies on the issue.
In parallel, the Office for National Statistics would help to establish a method of measuring loneliness, and a fund would be set up to help the government and charities to develop a wider strategy to identify opportunities to tackle the problem.
Government research has found that about 200,000 older people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.