Members' Business: Understanding the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Lonelines - 23 December 2020

Members' Business: Understanding the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Lonelines - 23 December 2020

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The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani): Good morning, everyone. Before we begin,   I remind members that social distancing  measures are in place in the chamber   and across the Holyrood campus. Please take care  to observe those measures during today’s business. The first item of business is a member’s  business debate on motion S5M-23326,   in the name of Rachael Hamilton, on understanding  the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on loneliness   and social isolation. The debate will be  concluded without any questions being put. We are a bit pushed for time today  so please stick to the timings.

Rachael Hamilton   (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con): I thank all members who signed my motion   for helping me to bring the  debate to the chamber today. On the day that Parliament finishes  up and we turn to Christmas,   it is absolutely right that we should debate  loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness   has a negative impact on the mental health of  one third of the adults in Scotland, which is   quite astounding. At this time of year, with its  long dark winter nights and cold days, it is far   more pronounced than it is at any other time,  and now the Covid pandemic has exacerbated the   situation. We now face a crisis that is on the  precipice and is tipping in the wrong direction.

I am sure that many of us watched  last Saturday’s announcement in shock,   sadness and disappointment as restrictions  were tightened over Christmas. I cannot begin   to imagine the upset and distress caused to many  older and vulnerable people when they learned that   Christmas is effectively cancelled, or certainly  scaled back for many parts of the country. The effect of the new restrictions will be  felt acutely by care home residents and their   families. When I was listening to BBC Radio  Scotland this morning, I heard people who I   know phoning in and talking about the distress  that they felt about not seeing their families   during Christmas, especially those who are in  care homes. That was really hard to listen to. According to Age Scotland, more than 150,000  over 65s in Scotland expect to feel lonely   during the festive season, and I suspect that,  sadly, that figure will be higher this year. We  

know about the devastating impact that loneliness  can have on mental and physical health. As my   motion mentions, it can be as bad as the effect  of smoking or obesity. As we debate here today,   we must ask ourselves what damage the situation is  doing to our loved ones and those who are alone. I would like to thank the charities  that, throughout the pandemic, have   been instrumental in tackling the rising levels  of loneliness and isolation. Age Scotland, the MS   Society Scotland, Glasgow’s Golden Generation,  the Salvation Army and many more have all worked   tirelessly to help older and more vulnerable  people who are experiencing social isolation. I especially want to praise the British Red Cross,  not only for the research that it has done into   loneliness and its assistance with today’s  debate, but for the tremendous efforts that it   has made during the pandemic. Its volunteers have  worked selflessly to help those who are in need.  

We saw volunteers helping with food parcels and  running a support line to help people to cope with   feelings of loneliness, mild depression, isolation  and grief after bereavement. It is continuing   with its fantastic work by assisting St John  Ambulance to roll out the new Covid-19 vaccine. In my constituency, the local group created a  coronavirus resilience calendar, which pointed   people in every town and village to the right  support. That was completely invaluable to me,   my constituents and my parliamentary team,  as it helped us to get support to people   quickly. We owe that group  a huge debt of gratitude. Not only has the British Red Cross’s help been  invaluable during the pandemic, its research   has the power to shape policy. The report “Lonely  and left behind: Tackling loneliness at a time  

of crisis”, which is mentioned in my motion,  published findings and recommendations that are   based on evidence on loneliness that it gathered  throughout lockdown. The report found that   41 per cent of United Kingdom adults felt  lonelier than they did before the pandemic,   and 35 per cent of UK adults are concerned  that their loneliness will get worse.   In these winter months, with renewed stricter  restrictions, that will, sadly, be the case. The report explored the experiences of people who  had recently been shielding and isolating or were   continuing to do so. An overriding theme was the  lack of face-to-face contact and a reluctance to  

admit to friends and family that they were lonely.  The experiences of the people surveyed were just   a snapshot of a widespread issue that exists in  not only the United Kingdom but across the world.   Although there can be immediate short-term  fixes, such as outdoor physical exercise or   social prescribing, it can be difficult for  many to participate in outdoor activities;   and some people do not have a garden or are not  physically able to take a walk or go for a run. A recommendation on which work has been  done through Connecting Scotland, albeit at   a slower pace than we would have liked, is that of  promoting alternative ways to connect. A fund was   announced back in 2018 to support the roll-out  of digital technology to assist older people.  

However, it was only recently  that we saw that put into action   with the advent of the pandemic. I have long  campaigned for better digital inclusion. What   struck me most during the first lockdown was  the digital divide. Many supermarkets asked   older people to book slots online but,  as we know, 44 per cent of over 75s do   not have access to the internet. Better  advice on choosing and using technology  

would help older people to participate in video  calls and order food shopping, for example. I hope that the Scottish Government will  consider the Red Cross recommendations   in full, as we need to see action now to  prevent the situation worsening as we head   into January and February. Undoubtedly, we all  face a long haul until we all get vaccinated. It is not just the Red Cross that has put  together a Covid impact report; similarly,   Age Scotland and Sight Scotland provided briefings  for this debate. I thank them for sharing those   with me. Age Scotland highlighted the  situation in care homes, as care home  

residents have been particularly impacted  by limited visiting opportunities. Family   members have reported seeing marked declines  in their loved ones’ wellbeing over the months.   As we know, chronic loneliness can seriously  impact on an older person’s health.

Things were moving in the right  direction with rapid testing,   but I suspect that the level 4 restrictions  now mean that, sadly, we will go back to   a limited position. Donald Macaskill said this  morning on BBC Radio Scotland that we are now   losing more people to the effects  of isolation than we are to the   virus. For me, that was chilling to hear and  something that I never thought we would hear. For those who are visually impaired or have  lost their sight, the impact is even more   pronounced. A Sight Scotland survey found that 70  per cent of those who participated said that their   sight loss had made lockdown a worse experience  and over 40 per cent said that they were still   not confident about getting back into the  community with social distancing measures   in place. The picture is dramatic, and it is  multidimensional, because we have not only the  

issue of loneliness but how it affects  different groups and to what degree. That is why I want the Scottish Government  to provide an enhanced loneliness and social   isolation strategy that pulls together  the recommendations of the Red Cross and   other charities and organisations. We are  going to go through a tough few months,   but I want to leave a message of positivity today.  Age Scotland said that 94,000 over 65s in Scotland   say that they would not have got through the  pandemic without the kindness of strangers. As we   leave here today, we must remember to look out for  one another this Christmas. I urge people to check  

on their elderly neighbours and to help those  who are less able than ourselves. Kindness and   support go a long way, but we also need the  Scottish Government to step up to the mark. The Deputy Presiding Officer:  We move to the open debate. I ask speakers  not to take longer than four minutes, please. Stewart Stevenson   (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP): I congratulate Rachael Hamilton on securing   the debate and giving me the opportunity  to talk about this important subject. Today, as it did yesterday and will  do for the days to come, Covid-19   erodes the human spirit and hard times are  here for us all. The burden is physical,   mental and, for many, spiritual; and the  weight continues to bear down on us all.  

It is hard to accept—it is not rational  and not chosen—and people across the planet   are struggling. That is no wonder, because  Covid-19 has hammered our global society,   stealing the lives of family and friends,  and it is direct, violent and destructive. To slow Covid’s rampant advance, we have been  forced to adopt social distancing and other   necessary measures so that we may somehow  reduce or allay its destructive force.   However, we are a social species, and those  measures come at a cost. That cost is social   isolation and loneliness. According to the  British Red Cross’s report “Lonely and left   behind”, more than half of adults say that  reduced social contact has made life harder,   and two thirds say that concerns about coronavirus  have caused them to minimise their interactions,   even when the rules permit it. What is worse  is that two fifths of adults across the UK  

report that they have not had a meaningful  conversation in the past fortnight. Those are clear signs of a deteriorating  psyche, with serious consequences.   For the vulnerable, that is even more the case.  Unable to see their friends and families, their  

lives are affected more than most, and the  insidious force of loneliness penetrates,   pervasive and enduring. Confidence decays, hope  begins to hollow and wellbeing vanishes. We   are trapped in the dark, suffering alone  and under immense stress, for the simple   reason that we cannot hold our loved ones  or have the luxury of seeing our friends. That comes with physical costs as well as  mental costs. When someone needs support,   it is in our nature to offer a hand. When  others speak, we should—and mostly do—listen.  

We laugh together and we cry together. Our  connection is obvious. We depend on each other,   and that is what gives our lives  meaning. The pandemic has shaken that. There are solutions, though. We  just need to innovate. Thankfully,   that is happening. Vaccines are being  created and new ways to connect,  

such as the one that we are  using today, are being developed. I join my colleague in commending the British   Red Cross on its creation of a  coronavirus resilience calendar.   That is the kind of impressive innovation that  we need, and I hope that it will be shared with   others. I also agree that the calls by the Red  Cross are well made. This is a far-reaching issue.

In my youth, Christmas day was a working day that  was not much different from normal days, but it   has become a day for family and for connection.  We should all do what we can to help those who are   lonely and affected by this dreadful virus and  their lack of contact with other human beings. David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): I, too, congratulate Rachael Hamilton on   securing this important members’ business debate  and on the quality and depth of her speech. Social isolation recognises no age, class or  gender. As the motion describes, the British   Red Cross has rightly warned about worsening  loneliness and social isolation this winter.  

That has been brought into even sharper focus  given that many parts of my region of the   Highlands and Islands will move from level  1 to level 4 restrictions later this week. In my early 20s, I volunteered to work with  the Samaritans in my home city of Inverness.   Many of the calls that I answered were from  desperately sad lonely people, some of whom   had physical or mental health problems. They just  needed someone to speak to—a shoulder to cry on.   The challenging geographic and population  demographic of the Highlands and Islands   always increases the potential in many  communities for loneliness and isolation among   vulnerable groups and individuals. However,  we have even greater cause for concern   this year, given the impact  of the Covid-19 pandemic. The available evidence shows that  loneliness has a negative effect on   health, wellbeing and resilience. There is  a risk of heart disease, stroke and higher  

levels of alcohol consumption and smoking.  Loneliness also substantially increases the   chances of dementia among older people. As the  research from the British Red Cross has shown,   those who feel lonely find it even more  difficult to cope with the pandemic than those   who are supported by friends and family,  which is why it so important that we do   everything that we can to raise awareness in our  communities of the support that is available. That is why I highlight and praise  The Press and Journal’s excellent   connect at Christmas campaign, which is supported  by all party leaders. The campaign aims to  

ensure that as few people as possible suffer the  harmful effects of loneliness this festive season. The British Red Cross has been instrumental  in supporting hundreds of people across the   Highlands and Islands through doorstep deliveries  of emergency food parcels and medication.   In addition, it has supported  NHS Highland, across the whole   of the board’s area, to provide care homes,  independent care providers and personal carers   with essential personal protective equipment to  keep people safe. That has included volunteers   delivering items of PPE to people who  need them in every part of the region.

Excellent local examples of such work include  that in Dingwall in Ross-shire, where the British   Red Cross has been working in partnership with  Connecting Carers to support vulnerable local   families and individuals, enabling it to keep  operating in a challenging environment. I mention   such families and individuals in particular  because research has shown that, as lockdown   restrictions and the Government’s guidance on  shielding relaxed, many participants reported   feeling left behind as they watched others resume  their social lives. The additional connectivity   challenges in the Highlands and Islands, both  physical and digital, have made it even harder   for the most vulnerable people in our society to  restart their lives and reconnect with people.   We must be alive to that issue as we enter  another period of tighter restrictions. I echo members’ earlier comments in welcoming  the introduction of Scottish Government   funding that aims to tackle loneliness and  isolation. It is essential that such support   for local authorities and health systems is  in place, to identify those who are at most   risk of loneliness and to address it  through a dedicated fund and guidance.

I will end my contribution with a  quote from an uncredited source: “We sometimes think we want to disappear,  but all we really want is to be found.” This winter, we must ensure  that those facing loneliness   and isolation receive the support to which they  are entitled. I praise organisations such as   the British Red Cross and all volunteers  who are going above and beyond to support   those who need their assistance over  this most challenging of winters. Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP): I am pleased to speak in this members’ business   debate and congratulate Rachael Hamilton on  securing it. It is unusual for us to hold such a  

debate in the morning but, as Ms Hamilton reminded  us, today is the day before Christmas eve. For many months now, we have been discussing the  fact that 2020 has been a year unlike any other.   The social, physical, mental health and financial  challenges that many people have faced over the   past nine months have been the most difficult for  everyone in our nation in recent history. However,   throughout that time, many communities across  Scotland have demonstrated great strength   in their support for neighbours, front-line  health care workers and our local producers   and shops while still complying with  difficult and often-changing restrictions.   The community spirit and selfless  attitudes that have been evidenced   by complete strangers, which other members have  also described, are a key way to help to tackle   social isolation and loneliness. We must  retain those as we emerge from the pandemic. It is welcome that there is  positive news on vaccines   and that the vaccination roll-out programme is  under way. As a nurse who is still registered,  

I have been able to join the  Dumfries and Galloway vaccine   team, all of whose members have been extremely  professional throughout my induction and training. The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly  had an impact on the mental health   of everyone, but particularly those  who are at risk of social isolation   and loneliness and those who have already  been identified as being isolated. They   include many people across Scotland’s rural  areas and those who have been identified as   being in the shielding category, many  of whom are in my South Scotland region. The impact of the pandemic has particularly  affected our farmers and agricultural workers.   This year, all the agricultural shows—from  those held in Dumfries and Stranraer to even   the Royal Highland Show—which usually  allow farmers to connect with one another,   even for just a single day in the year, have been  cancelled, which has obviously had its own impact.

Two local groups that I was working  with before the Covid pandemic—the   Dumfries and Galloway Farmers Choir and  the Dumfries and Galloway retired farmers   group—have been raising awareness of and tackling  social isolation and loneliness. Recently,   both have been keeping in touch with their members  over Zoom, through email and on the phone. Indeed,   the farmers choir, which last year sang  in the Parliament’s garden lobby, has   also been supporting members of the community  by helping with shopping and being a friendly   voice on the other end of the phone. I was able  to help the group to distribute its members   newsletter by post, because it would normally  be handed over face to face at its meetings.

During the pandemic, many people across the  country volunteered to help in their communities.   I was able to participate with Third Sector  Dumfries and Galloway to join its touch   base telephone programme. Volunteers were assigned  to speak to people who had been identified as   being isolated. Regular appointment phone calls  were made to touch base with them, to ensure that   essential medical supplies and food deliveries had  been organised—and even just to have a blether.   Third Sector D and G has asked whether a national  network of volunteers could or should be created,   with the necessary funding, to support and  co-ordinate such volunteering in the community.  

Third Sector D and G and Age Scotland have  called for better co-ordination and vetting   of volunteering activities  by the Scottish Government,   and I would welcome clarity from the minister  on steps in relation to volunteers and support. Our intensive care units across Scotland  have been using videoconferencing technology   to connect patients with family  members who are outside ICUs.   We could talk about so much—I know  that the Government has a winter plan   and that a lot is going on, which I am  sure that the minister will expand on.

The message from me is that, over Christmas and   new year, we should look out for, keep  an eye on and be kind to one another. John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green): I, too, congratulate Rachael Hamilton   on giving us the opportunity to  discuss this important issue. The   motion’s title refers to understanding  the impact, which is what we should all   try to do. It is clear that social isolation  is damaging. Covid has contributed to that and “has had a pronounced effect on  older and vulnerable people”, as the motion says. [Inaudible.]  I commend the work of   the British Red Cross on tackling social  isolation and improving mental health. In the previous parliamentary session, I was a  member of the Equal Opportunities Committee when   it undertook what was understood to be the first  parliamentary inquiry in the world into age and   social isolation. For evidence purposes, we took  Professor Mima Cattan’s definition, which was:

“Social isolation could be defined as  an objective, measurable state of having   minimal contact with other people, such as  family, friends or the wider community.” It was significant that  Professor Cattan considered that,   although it might be possible to  measure social isolation, the feelings   of loneliness are personal and individual and  therefore more challenging to measure objectively. For that inquiry, we visited two very  different communities—Easterhouse   in Glasgow and the Isle of Islay in my region.  We found that folk are folk—the issues are the   same regardless of where they are and are not a  matter of geography or architecture; things are   personal to us all, no two people are the same and  the myriads of relations that we have all differ. We heard from committed individuals from across  Scotland who highlighted social isolation and   loneliness and were tackling its causes. The many  briefings would confirm where we are with that.   We were told that early steps for people who have  been affected by loneliness to make connections   are crucial. I commend the outstanding work by the  many who help people to take those first steps.

In Sight Scotland’s briefing for the debate, I  was taken by its quote from someone who said: “I once bumped into someone and they  shouted at me that ‘I shouldn’t be out.’” Covid has compounded many issues,   but it has not changed them for people  who already felt a bit excluded. The pandemic has brought into sharp relief  many inequalities of our society. The  

crisis has brought new struggles for everyone but,  in most cases, it is those who are on low incomes,   in insecure work or vulnerable for the other  reasons that have been highlighted who have borne   and continue to bear the brunt of the  virus’s devastation. People who work   in essential services such as care or in  our supermarkets have put their health   at risk to ensure that the rest of us could  cope with the crisis. Like others, I commend   the Scottish Government’s recent announcement  that it will expand the eligibility criteria   for the self-isolation support grant, which  Scottish Greens have been very supportive of. In many respects, the pandemic has been a  microcosm of what we have already, such as   the haves and the have-nots. I say gently that the  UK Government’s welfare reform programme does not  

help with that; people will be socially isolated  if they cannot afford a bus fare. A person can   be lonely in a crowd or content on their  own. Seeing the mental health challenges   as part of a more holistic  approach to health is important. I thank all who provide support, such  as statutory agencies, the third sector,   support groups and faith groups. There is hope  because of the vaccines, and I know that all   those organisations will play their part in  trying to end the blight of social isolation.

Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP): I thank Rachael Hamilton for securing   this important debate. I know from personal  experience how difficult it has been for people   and families who have a loved one in care. I thank  care home staff, who are doing a fantastic job   in these difficult times. Like others,  I also thank the many organisations,   both professional and voluntary,  that have provided help and support   during the pandemic period  and will continue to do so. I thank the Minister for Older People and  Equalities, Christina McKelvie, for attending   our meeting last week of the cross-party group  in the Scottish Parliament on older people, age   and ageing, which had many voluntary organisation  representatives and other individuals present for   a question-and-answer session. On behalf of the  cross-party group, I thank the minister for her  

enthusiasm and for her succinct  answers to the many questions.   It was a lively discussion and I am sure that  she might refer to it in her summing-up speech. I will pick up on some issues in my constituency  and refer to groups in it. Rachael Hamilton   referred to the Golden Generation, which is  based in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency.   The organisation has worked hard to  develop a fantastic digital app that is   dementia friendly and easy to use for those who  have no prior experience of digital technology.  

The app not only has set-up instructions but,  crucially, shows what the organisation offers.   The organisation has a team of digital champions  who are trained to assist users over the phone.   One of the users gave some  fantastic feedback, saying: “I’ve never had a tablet computer before.  It’s all new to me, but it’s lovely to see   the familiar faces of the charity staff on the  screen. Having access to the app makes me feel   less alone, less isolated  and helps me keep in touch   with the team and I enjoy the activities which  are put forward on the app. It gives me something  

to do and keeps me active during the day. So  thank you very much the Golden Generation.” The Golden Generation has produced many other  initiatives, but too many to mention in the   short time that I have here. However, the  organisation has made 17,000 befriending   phone calls to older community members, which  have been delivered by its 50 key workers. There is also the Annexe Healthy Living Centre  in my constituency, which I have mentioned,   like the other community facilities there,  many times previously. The centre’s stalwart   staff are based in the community and are a  great support to the people there. Volunteers   staff the visiting centre, which opened up for  meals for older people that they could book.  

I attended one of the meals and chatted with  some users and staff, who I thank as well. The organisation has even gone beyond  doing that, though. It adapted to the   restrictions that were put in place and  co-ordinated what is called PATCH—the   Partick and Thornwood community help scheme—which  delivers thousands of care packages to older and   vulnerable members of the community. The  organisation’s support, through regular   telephone calls and so on, has been  invaluable. Others can learn from how   the Annexe Healthy Living Centre has been able to  change and adapt as various measures have come in.

My time is up, but that is just a snapshot  of the fantastic work that is being done in   my community, and I am sure that similar  work is being done throughout Scotland. The Deputy Presiding Officer: I ask Christina McKelvie to   respond to the debate. You have  up to seven minutes, minister. The Minister for Older People and  Equalities (Christina McKelvie):  I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing this  debate to Parliament today as we approach the   end of the parliamentary term in what has  undoubtedly been the most difficult year.   I thank all the members who have  contributed to this timely debate.   However, I thank Sandra White in particular  for her lovely words in building up a sister.   We sometimes need a bit of building  up, so I am grateful for that.

In December 2019, I spent time with a great  wee organisation in Edinburgh called Vintage   Vibes. It was sending Christmas cards to  older people who might be isolated or lonely.   It was a humbling but fun experience.  Hearing about the positive impact of   such small acts of kindness—a wee card  with a few words in it—really builds up   and lightens our hearts. Christmas 2020 could  not be more different, yet those small acts of   kindness, many of which we have heard about  in the debate, are even more important now. A lot of statistics have been  quoted this morning, including from   the University of Stirling and the British Red  Cross. Although none of those statistics makes   good reading, it is crystal clear that we  understand how damaging social isolation and   loneliness can be. We treat it as a public health  issue in Scotland; when we hear from David Stewart  

about the work that he did locally with the  Samaritans, we understand why. It breaks my heart   that some older people, schoolchildren,  home workers, residents in care settings,   furloughed employees, unpaid  carers and many more feel that way. Nonetheless, every day of the past 10  months, communities all over Scotland   have demonstrated their hope and resilience,  and they have done so in countless ways,   many of which we have heard about this morning.  We heard about the Golden Generation’s digital   champions in Sandra White’s Glasgow Kelvin  constituency—17,000 befriending phone calls   is just amazing. We have stood in the street  to clap our national health service heroes,   we have knocked on neighbours’ doors to  offer to get their shopping in, we have made   countless Zoom calls and we have simply picked  up the phone or given somebody a friendly wave.

In the examples mentioned by Rachael Hamilton,  Stewart Stevenson, David Stewart, Emma Harper   and John Finnie, tackling social  isolation and loneliness starts   at an important but simple place: kindness. We  have talked a lot about that this morning. Left   unchecked, loneliness can run rampant through  communities. It does not have to be that way,   though. I was struck by a statistic  that Stewart Stevenson gave us this   morning. Imagine Stewart Stevenson giving us  a statistic—who would have thought it?—but he  

gave us an important one, which is that two in  five adults have had no meaningful connection   or conversation with anyone in the  past two weeks. That should stop us all   in our tracks and make us think about the people  who we see in our communities who we do not   say hello to. Maybe we should all endeavour to  say hello to them in the next couple of weeks. It is not the job of Government alone to  tackle loneliness and isolation. It is   important that we come together today  in our Parliament to commit that each   and every one of us will be kind and remember  others, whether or not we think that they are   coping. A phone call or a knock on the  door might be just what someone needs. On 11 December, I announced details of nearly  £1 million funding for tackling loneliness and   isolation right now. That was part of a wider  £6 million funding package to promote equality,  

tackle social isolation and loneliness, and  improve an important aspect of our winter   plan—digital inclusion. I will provide more  details on the volunteering aspect of that to   Emma Harper. It is the responsibility  of another cabinet secretary, but I   will get Ms Harper an update on the volunteers  plan, because a lot of work is going into that. Rachael Hamilton:  With regard to the connected Scotland strategy,  can Christina McKelvie update the chamber on how   the national implementation group is looking  at the changing landscape during the pandemic? Christina McKelvie:  Rachael Hamilton has anticipated my next page of  notes. I will come to that and give her an update. I want to give Parliament a wee insight into one  of the organisations that will benefit from the   funding that I have announced. Generations Working  Together is Scotland’s intergenerational expert   and a key member of our national implementation  group and older people’s strategic action forum.  

It worked with pupils at Bertha Park high  school to create a YouTube Christmas show   for care home residents. Please watch the show—it  is wonderful and it will make you feel better.   I have watched it a couple of times. There is  a poem in it called “Hope” by a young woman   called LilyAnna. At the end of the poem, she says,  “Embrace it, hope.” That is an excellent message,  

especially at Christmas, but also when  we have hope in our vaccine coming. The children worked hard to learn the  music, songs and jokes. They participated   in the show in the knowledge that they will  brighten up the day of thousands of care home   residents across the country. Their talent is  boundless—it is wonderful. Members have to hear   Dan singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”—it is  incredibly poignant at this time. Please watch it.

I am sure that Rachael Hamilton will be pleased  to hear that I was delighted to meet Maria and   Kenneth from the British Red Cross on 25 November  to hear about their recommendations and respond to   the letter. They will continue to work with us on  that. It was also a pleasure to confirm something   that Emma Harper will welcome, which is what we  have done to focus on loneliness with our clear   your head campaign. We have targeted funding  to focus on connections and to tackle isolation   and loneliness throughout the pandemic. That  becomes more important as we head into winter. We have also provided additional investment  to tackle digital isolation. I can respond  

to Rachel Hamilton’s intervention by saying that  we have targeted 5,000 older and disabled people   with the connected Scotland programme. It has been  important for people to come together digitally. Emma Harper talked about a retired  farmers group and a farmers choir   and I look forward to hearing them singing here. The digital Scotland programme will be important.  We have a target to connect 5,000 older   and disabled people, but we are  doing much more. We are benefiting  

diverse groups including befriending networks,  the time to live fund, the Scottish Men’s Sheds   Association, the Scottish ethnic minority older  people forum, Generations Working Together,   YouthLink Scotland and Chest Heart and Stroke’s  kindness calls—some of which I have taken   part in. We have also worked with the ethnic  minority resilience network BEMIS, Intercultural   Youth Scotland, the Minority Ethnic Carers  of People Project, LGBT Health and Wellbeing,   Glasgow Disability Alliance, national support for  learning disability, the British Deaf Association,   Deafblind Scotland and families that are  separated because a parent is currently in prison. Research that came from the House of  Commons library yesterday tells us   that the overall cost to older people in  Scotland of not having their television   licence provided for free this year could be  as much as £40 million. I hope that the United   Kingdom Government will overturn that decision,  especially when people are facing loneliness at   Christmas. The ending of the free licence  is doubly cruel as we ask people to stay  

home while we battle a global pandemic. I  hope that the UK Government will do better. Keeping connected to others is important and  today’s debate has shone a spotlight on that,   as John Finnie said. It is a priority  for me, for the Government and,   I hope, for the Parliament. I am proud  that we have come together on the day   before Christmas eve to debate this. I wish you  all a safe, happy and connected festive period.

2021-01-01 09:56

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