People at risk of harm through drugs given digital access and support in progressive new approach to tackling Scotland’s ‘unacceptable’ drug death rates

Nigel Gallear, Digital Inclusion Programme Manager, Simon Community Scotland

HUNDREDS 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. 

The digital inclusion programme, funded by Scottish Government Digital Health and Care and Drugs Policy Divisions, and the Drugs Death Taskforce, supports more than 30 organisations, who with support from the Scottish Council For Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) work with people at greatest risk of harm from drugs in 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. 

Participants in the programme are some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland, including those experiencing homelessness, release from custody, victims of abuse, or those leaving hospital or residential services. Those involved in the project say it has improved their lives immeasurably, providing greater safety, security, inclusion, and crucially identity. For example, having an email address has enabled people to participate actively in third-party communication concerning them, such as social work, in many cases changing the way they are treated. 

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 including Ireland and UAE are monitoring its progress.

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. 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.”


‘It’s changed my life’: Man navigating homelessness and substance use says ‘game changing’ programme has put him on path to getting his life back.

David, from Edinburgh, is in recovery from substance use. He has previously had to sleep rough on the streets of the capital, and became ‘completely cut off’ from friends, family, and even his children. 

He sought help from Simon Community Scotland through the Streetwork programme, and after initial engagement was introduced to Digital Lifelines through his support worker. The scheme has enabled him to engage with health, care and support services; reconnect with friends and family; and also enrol in education. He is taking two Open University courses in business studies and quantity surveying with a view to starting his own firm in domestic roofing surveying. 

David, a former roofer who also works part time as a recovery support coach, said: “People don’t realise how damaging it can be not to have a phone, especially without a network of family or close friends around you. I was cut off from family, kids, close friends I’d known all my life. It puts you in a cage and makes you feel isolated. 

“Getting the phone was a game charger. It allows you to communicate, make appointments, keep appointments, get in touch with family. You get to a stage [in your recovery] when you want to progress, and it’s vital to have that. 

“I’m looking to better myself in higher education, so I need a laptop or a tablet to access the course, and you can’t do that on a phone alone. 

“Anybody who’s on that path to bettering themselves, they need to reach out and get the equipment to enable them to do it.

“The more you engage, the more you are supported. You have to show them that you’re on the path you want to be on, and that you’re committed to it, and once they see that they take it upon themselves to try their best for you. 

“It’s about providing the basics [to enable you to recover]. It used to be cleanliness and accommodation, clothes and comfort. Now it’s just as much the ability to communicate or you’re not going to get any further. Phones, and laptops are essential.” 

He added: I’m really impressed with the phone. I keep it in a case and there’s not a scratch on it. It’s changed my life.” 

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