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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Vulnerable Scots given a digital lifeline


Different services come together to deliver meaningful outcomes

Some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland have been provided with smartphones, tablets, or laptops as part of a pioneering and progressive digital inclusion programme.

Aimed at reducing unacceptable levels of drug-related harm and deaths across the nation, the £3 million Digital Lifelines programme, led by Scotland’s Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre (DHI), supports people at risk of harm through drugs by providing access to areas of life most take for granted –such as connection to family and friends, online banking, health and social care access, public services such as council tax, education, and entertainment. 

Supported by the Scottish Council For Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) the digital inclusion programme is funded by Scottish Government Digital Health and Care and Drugs Policy Divisions and the Drugs Death Taskforce.

It supports more than 30 organisations that work with people at greatest risk of harm from drugs, providing mobile devices, access to data plans, digital training, and ongoing support through digital champions. 

Launched in April 2021, Digital Lifelines has so far supported more than 1,700 participants throughout Scotland, with 1,056 devices – typically android smartphones – and 1,467 connectivity packages with unlimited data provided. 

Carrie Thomson, Digital Lifelines Scotland portfolio lead, Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre, said: “We all take access to digital services for granted, and it’s not until you don’t have access that the consequences are truly felt. So much of life – communication, banking, travel, shopping, and access to healthcare – is now reliant on being online, and those on the outside of the digital circle are shut off and the impact can be hugely damaging. 

“Digital Lifelines provides one of Scotland’s most vulnerable groups with greater access to the confidence, skills, and motivation they need to be digitally included, alongside devices and connectivity that form digital solutions that keep them safe and that enable them to become and remain connected to family, friends, and relevant services that support them.

“Scotland continues to have an unacceptably high number of drug related deaths, but the challenges are not unique to this country, and that’s why this progressive approach is attracting attention from other nations around the world as well as across the UK.

"In the 21st century, we need to take multiple different approaches to reducing harm and death from drug use by supporting people and tackling stigma. Digital Lifelines is a prime example of that. The model has been proven to work with other groups and has been tailored to help people at risk of harm through drugs. 

“It’s exactly what DHI is all about – bringing different services together to deliver meaningful outcomes in health and social care across Scotland.” 

Some organisations involved – such as Simon Community Scotland and Aberdeen ADA – also provide access to applications that address acute issues related to drug use through the devices. This includes help and advice on safe administering; up to date information on new drugs; remote consumption; emergency support; and access to support to come off drugs. 

Simon Community Scotland, which works with thousands of people experiencing homelessness often coupled to a range of physical and mental health conditions, has been involved in Digital Lifelines since 2021. It delivers the programme at the sharp end, providing appropriate devices, unlimited data packages, and one-to-one support delivered by front line workers trained as digital champions. It also provides access to its award-winning ‘By My Side’ harm reduction app – originally designed for women at risk of harm through drugs, and now offered to all. 

Despite the vulnerable situation many of the service users find themselves in, only a tiny proportion of devices end up lost, sold, or stolen, and that’s down to the immense personal value individuals place on having a device and the connectivity it provides.  

Nigel Gallear, digital inclusion programme manager at the Simon Community, said: “Harm reduction is a fundamental aspect of our delivery of Digital Lifelines, and access to the By My Side app provides information and support where none exists. At Simon Community Scotland, we take a broad harm reduction approach when working alongside people who use drugs and we are committed to reducing the subsequent risks and promoting health and wellbeing.

“Beyond harm reduction we also looked at five broad subjects: communicating with services, finding information, connection with friends and family, entertainment, and learning – one of the most important functions. 

“Many of us don’t realise how reliant we are on technology for access to key services. Digitisation in the public and private sector has improved access to services through digital to around 80% of the population, but it’s the 20% – the digitally excluded – that miss out even more. The people we work with are in that group. 

“The vast majority of the hundreds of people we’ve supported just want access to the day-to-day things most of us do and take for granted – reading, social media, messaging friends and family etc. Digital exclusion is incredibly isolating and takes an enormous toll on an individual's health and wellbeing, and Digital Lifelines is designed specifically to address that risk.” 

Christina McKelvie, the Scottish Government’s minister for drugs and alcohol policy, said: “Initiatives such as the Digital Lifelines Programme demonstrate our long-standing commitment to digital inclusion. This is important to ensure that as many people as possible get access to the improved services, support and experiences in health and social care that digital can deliver.  

“To date 1,700 people at risk of drug death or harm have been supported by the programme and it’s great to hear about the programme’s positive impact, as well as feedback from people based on their experiences.”



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