Hundreds of thousands of elderly Scots are at risk of being excluded from the festive period, a leading charity has warned.

As 2020 draws to a close, there are fears that many of Scotland's older population could face Christmas alone this year.

People in Scotland were advised this morning to begin preparing for a "digital Christmas" in light of lockdown restrictions that are set to remain in place over the festive period.

National clinical director Professor Jason Leitch warned on Thursday that the idea of a normal Christmas with large family gatherings is "fiction" for this year.

READ MORE: Scots should prepare for 'digital Christmas' with no large family gatherings this year, clinical director warns

But Age Scotland, the country's leading charity for the elderly, said that this advice risks inadvertently excluding those who do not have access to digital technology and the internet.

“With current lockdown restrictions extending and a tiered system on the horizon, it’s difficult not to look ahead and wonder what the festive period might look like," the charity's head of policy and communications, Adam Stachura, told The Herald. "A huge number of older people have already spent most of the year much more isolated than ever before, with their levels of loneliness rising substantially.

“While we understand that celebrations this year will be far from normal, asking us all to prepare for a ‘digital Christmas’ risks, inadvertently, excluding hundreds of thousands of older people without access to digital technology and the internet."

He added: “There has been a recent increase in the number of older people online or using a smartphone but the ongoing impact of COVID-19 has demonstrated just how easily those who are digitally excluded can feel out of the loop.

"For instance, while video calls with family will now be second nature to some, for others this just isn’t an option."

Professor Jason Leitch told BBC's Good Morning Scotland on Thursday that it was "honestly too early to say" what would happen at Christmas.

He said: "I'm hopeful costs now may get us a more family Christmas. But Christmas is not going to be normal, there's absolutely no question about that.

"We are not going to be in large family groupings, with multiple families coming round - that is fiction for this year.

"I'm hopeful that if we can get numbers down to a certain level we may be able to get some form of normality. But people should get their digital Christmas ready."

The charity says around 100,000 older people in Scotland ate Christmas dinner alone last year, and there are fears this number could rise amid an unknown level of coronavirus restrictions in place across the country this December.

“We know winter can already be an especially lonely time of year for many older people," Mr Stachura continued. "Many more may be alone this year, with community lunches and festivities unable to go ahead.

"As cold weather keeps us indoors, garden and doorstep meetings will also be restricted."

The charity is reaching out to Scots who may be able to help combat this loneliness while also adhering to guidelines in force to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Mr Stachura said: “The thought of being unable to celebrate in person with friends and family is incredibly difficult, but we can all reach out to those around us to stay connected and ensure no one feels they are going through this alone.

"If digital communication isn’t an option, a phone call, card or doorstep chat where possible can make a huge difference."

He added: “We’d also urge any older person in need of support or just a friendly voice to call our free Friendship Line on 0800 12 44 222, available Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm.”

Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill said: “Our elderly population has endured real hardships these past several months, with many remaining isolated from family and friends.  

“With winter flu a real threat to those in care homes, and with shielding more important than ever, this move will serve only to force older people further into isolation, loneliness and depression. 

“It is cruel to impose a “digital” Christmas onto our elderly population when many will not even have access to a tablet, far less the internet. 

“Older people cannot be allowed to become even more cut off from their families and friends. The Scottish Government must produce a plan to ensure elderly people can continue to stay connected to their loved ones over the festive season, and avoid further misery.”  

The Scottish Government has been approached for comment.