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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2020

Agenda: Covid-19 (Loneliness and Social Isolation), Covid-19 (Vaccine and Testing Programmes), First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, Environmental Standards Scotland (Appointments), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Covid-19 (Loneliness and Social Isolation)

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.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises what it considers the damaging impact of social isolation and loneliness throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic; considers that it has had a pronounced effect on older and vulnerable people; understands that studies have shown that, in the long term, it can be as bad for human health as smoking or obesity; acknowledges the recent University of Stirling study, which found that 56% of people said social distancing had made them more lonely; notes the concerns raised in the recent British Red Cross report, Lonely and left behind: Tackling loneliness at a time of crisis, that 32% of UK adults agree that they worry something will happen to them and no one will notice; commends the British Red Cross’s work, especially in Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire with the Coronavirus Resilience Calendar, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to consider the report’s recommendations in full in order to tackle social isolation and improve mental health and wellbeing.


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.