The death of Jo Cox seven months ago left an unfillable hole in the hearts and lives of her family, friends and colleagues.
But we promised to keep the legacy of her inspirational work alive and now we are launching a new campaign to take on one the causes closest to Jo’s heart – the silent epidemic of loneliness.
Jo was working hard to tackle what she called the “shocking crisis” of loneliness before her senseless murder as she went about her work as MP for Batley and Spen.
With the support of her family, we launched the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness yesterday to continue her work and to find ways of overcoming the untold misery that loneliness brings to so many people.
The scale of the problem and the threat it poses to the physical and mental health of thousands of people means tjat we urgently need action on a national as well as local level.
Around two-fifths of all older people – almost four million men and women – say the television is their main form of company. A lack of social connections among lonely people poses a similar risk of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
More than nine million people privately admit they are “always or often lonely”. That is something we have to change.
But loneliness is not just something that just blights the lives of the elderly. Those who suffer are just as likely to include those are widowed or separated, a single parent or someone who lives alone.
As Jo said: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”
It affects people from all backgrounds from the bullied school child, to the new mother, to the pensioner who has outlived her friends and immediate family.
And it is not just about being isolated from their communities. Many lonely people are hidden in plain sight, in towns and cities, ignored and alone.
Just as Jo would have wished, it is a cross-party campaign that brings together politicians, policymakers, charities and other leading organisations in an effort to find practical solutions to the problem.
Over the year ahead, our commission will highlight the devastating impact loneliness can have on people of all ages and from all walks of life. But Jo felt, rightly, it was never good enough just to raise awareness of an issue. That’s why the commission that we are co-chairing will aim to help people realise how they can help.
That could mean talking to a neighbour, visiting an old friend or just making time for a cup of tea with someone living on their own.
We will publish a manifesto at the end of the year spelling out what action we believe the government should take to reduce the harm caused by the crushing sense of loneliness that too many suffer from.
As well as the personal toll that loneliness takes on people’s lives, there are also the financial costs of treating mental health problems, depression and other illnesses that it so often triggers.
The initial findings from our steering group reveals that loneliness is more widespread and affects far more people than previously thought. Yet many people suffer in silence and hide their problem from friends and family who could offer them help and support.
It is time to break that silence by starting a conversation. We need a national conversation about the scale and impact of the problem. But just as importantly, all of us can start a conversation with a family member, friend or neighbour who would value some company.
At the launch hosted by John Bercow, the commons speaker, in his official residence yesterday, we were joined by Jo’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, and her widower, Brendan.
We are also fortunate to have many great organisations backing the commission including Action for Children, Age UK, Alzheimer’s Society, The British Red Cross, The Campaign to End Loneliness, Carers UK, The Co-op, Eden Project Communities, Independent Age, Refugee Action, Royal Voluntary Service, Sense and The Silver Line.
They will be involved in highlighting how loneliness affects different groups including older people, children, those with disabilities, carers, refugees and parents.
But you don’t have to be a doctor or a trained professional to do something about it. Every one of us can “live like Jo” and help bring an end to this epidemic.
You can make a difference by dropping in on a friend, neighbour or relative who you think might be lonely or calling them for a chat.
We can all work together to end loneliness. That would be a fitting tribute to Jo and ensure that her legacy of selflessness and helping others lives on.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and Seema Kennedy is Conservative MP for South Ribble. They co-chair the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
You can find out more about the Loneliness Commission at https://www.jocoxloneliness.org/
Article originally written for the Times Red Box.