GPs will be able to prescribe activities such as cookery classes and gardening to combat loneliness, Theresa May has confirmed.
Instead of prescribing pills, doctors will be encouraged to use “social prescribing” to refer lonely people to activities also including walking clubs and art groups.
The prime minister announced the initiative as part of an extra £1.8m for community projects, such as creating new community cafes, art spaces or gardens.
Mrs May said social prescriptions would reduce pressures on the NHS and improve patients’ quality of life.
Launching the UK’s first loneliness strategy, Mrs May confirmed GPs in England will be able to refer lonely people to community and voluntary activities by 2023.
Postal workers will also be encouraged to check in with lonely people on their delivery rounds in a scheme with Royal Mail being rolled out in Liverpool, New Malden and Whitby.
She paid tribute to murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who campaigned to end loneliness.
“Jo Cox was absolutely right to highlight the critical importance of this growing social injustice which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental well-being as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time,” she said.
“I was pleased to be able to support the Loneliness Commission set up in Jo’s name and I am determined to do everything possible to take forward its recommendations.
“This strategy is only the beginning of delivering a long and far reaching social change in our country – but it is a vital first step in a national mission to end loneliness in our lifetimes.”
The prime minister said loneliness is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time and is linked to illnesses including heart disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease.
About 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month, and three-quarters of GPS said they see up to five people a day suffering loneliness.
Mrs Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, speaking on behalf of the Jo Cox Foundation, said she was delighted by the strategy.
She said: “The work on loneliness has been a hugely important part of Jo’s legacy and it is heartwarming to see how much progress has been made on the subject since her murder.
“It is excellent to see that loneliness is now firmly on the government’s agenda, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has been involved in getting us to this point.
“The important thing now is to turn the dialogue and strategy into action – that is undoubtedly what Jo would want, and for every life that is made less lonely as a result of the work she started and that we have all continued, we will take great comfort.”
Mrs May also announced the first employer pledge to tackle loneliness in the workplace, supported by businesses including Sainsbury’s Co-op, National Grid, Transport for London, British Red Cross and the civil service.
The new funding is in addition to £20m announced in June to help charities and community groups expand programmes to bring people together.