Social isolation is still a major problem in many of Northern Ireland’s rural communities – and the issue needs to become a “top priority” for any future executive, Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has warned.

Nicholson said: “Loneliness and social isolation are real problems facing many in our rural areas. As a result, the mental and physical health and general well-being of those, who are often living on their own, are severely impacted.

“The problems are further exacerbated by dwindling GP services in rural areas, and a general lack of community facilities.

“Along with GP services and access to community facilities, poor transport links and appropriate housing in rural areas contribute to the social isolation blight on our rural communities.”

‘Golden hello’

In October, the British Medical Association (BMA) lobbied for plans to give young GPs a £20,000 ‘golden hello’ (to work in rural areas) to be rolled out across Northern Ireland too.

Under the scheme, GPs in training are given £20,000 if they choose to start their careers in rural areas.

Isolation problems have been further exacerbated with the closure of dozens of rural banks across the region.

Nicholson added: “We are sadly all too aware of the issues of attracting GPs into rural practices and the associated problems this has on our rural communities.

“If a future Northern Ireland Executive is to be formed, this needs to be a top priority. A cross-departmental approach, including a new way of tackling these problems, is required. This will ensure future sustainability and community cohesion in rural areas.”