Hundreds of the most vulnerable people in Scotland have been provided with digital devices as part of a programme aimed at reducing drug death and related harm.

A £3m 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 and online services.

The programme has handed out more than a thousand android smartphones along with tablets, and laptops through 30 organisations who with support from the Scottish Council For Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) work.

Recipients include those experiencing homelessness, release from custody, victims of abuse, or those leaving hospital or residential services.

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Launched in April 2021, the ‘Digital Lifelines’ scheme has so far supported more than 1,700 participants throughout Scotland with devices and connectivity packages with unlimited data.

Those involved in the project say it provided greater safety, security, inclusion, and greater access to services such as social work.

The four-year programme – an extension of a Scottish Government initiative to improve digital inclusion across other marginalised groups in Scotland including the elderly – has proved so effective that authorities in other nations are monitoring its progress.

The Herald: Carrie ThomsonCarrie Thomson (Image: DHI)

Carrie Thomson, Digital Lifelines Scotland Portfolio Lead, Digital Health & Care Innovation Centre, leads the project. She 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.”

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She added: “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.

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.

“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.”

The Herald: Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie (Image: PA)

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.”