The Local Government Association has called it a ‘major public health crisis’, comparable to obesity and smoking.

The effects of loneliness are felt across society, with nearly one-third of all older people are thought to suffer from it. The LGA’s research found that sufferers are 30% more likely to die early, and 64% more likely to develop conditions such as dementia. Too often ignored in the past, people are increasingly waking up to the wider public health and social cost of loneliness and isolation.

More and more of us are living alone, and living longer. Without regular contact from friends and family, lonely people are far more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and mental decline, and to smoke and drink excessively. As a result they’re more likely to need medical treatment, and to become reliant on residential or social care. At a time when health and social care budgets are under massive strain, the economic cost of loneliness has been set at £2.9bn per year.

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The Co-operative Party has joined with the co-operative movement to push this ‘hidden epidemic’ up the agenda. Last year over 100,000 of the Co-operative Group’s members and staff voted to campaign on the issue, announcing a partnership with the British Red Cross. Together, they aim to raise a £3.5m fund to campaign to reconnect the thousands of people affected by loneliness back to their communities, as well as drawing attention to the issue via the #Campaigningcoop hashtag.

Britain’s other co-operative societies are launching pushes of their own, with East of England co-operative’s ‘Co-op Cuppa’ project distributing 200,000 free tea bags to more than 310 clubs, churches, schools and community clubs.

Through the Party’s Peoples Bus campaign, we’ve been working to highlight the role of bus services in the loneliness epidemic.

For millions of people, buses are far more than a means of transport – they’re a lifeline. Access to buses means the ability to maintain social interaction, and physical and mental health.

For the more than half of elderly people who lack access to private transport, the local bus means being able to maintain friendships and support networks, to participate in community groups or day centres, and to see family regularly.

In even more practical terms, it’s being able to go to the shops or pick up a prescription independently, or to go to a GP appointment rather than requiring a home visit. It’s people who would otherwise be isolated gossiping over a cup of tea during the weekly visit to the shops, or watching the football together at the local pub. It’s maintaining dignity, independence and the ability to look after oneself far longer in life than those stuck at home.

The economic case for access to public transport is clear cut. Research by ECT in partnership with Deloitte found that in terms of reduced need for GP home visits alone, expanded not-for-profit community transport could save up to £89m per year. Overall, they estimate the benefits to the state achievable through community transport at between £0.4bn and £1.1bn per year. Given the devastating human and social cost of £44m cuts in bus services since 2010, its clear that cutting bus routes is a false economy.

A 15 minute care visit or even online shopping are no substitute for the social interaction and health and physical benefits that come from a trip to the shops. That’s why the Co-operative Party is working to ensure that we recognise the wider social importance of local bus services, and to campaign for a greater role for community transport operators, who run buses for people, rather than profit.

Labour & Co-operative councillor Liam Robinson, who Chairs MerseyTravel, which oversees bus services in the region  says:

“In the Liverpool City Region we are very conscious of the vital role that available, accessible and affordable public transport plays in addressing loneliness. It tackles isolation by allowing people to get out and about staying active and healthy- helping to reduce pressures on the NHS and Social Services. Also when people are out and about they are usually spending in local shops and services providing a real boost to the local economy.”

In the months ahead, through our #PeoplesBus campaign, we’ll be working with the co-operative movement to ensure that the loneliness crisis receives the attention it deserves, and that the critical role of local transport in solving it is recognised.