Parliament zooms in on isolation, heating bills and silver-surfing

Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville, Holyrood and Labour MSP Pauline McNeill.

By Bill Heaney

There are so many names given to the elderly today that those over 70 are often left wondering which group they fall into.

So, where do they go when they need something in critical times such as those they are having to live with in this pandemic?

Not everyone one is isolated, ill, lonely or going hungry, so what is being done for fit and healthy septuagenarians and above by the Scottish government?

The Minister for Older People and Equalities, Christina McKelvie, told MSPs today that she is “acutely aware of the increase in social isolation and loneliness as a result of Covid-19.

“Building on our social isolation and loneliness strategy, we have been working with stakeholders to put in place a range of additional support to mitigate the impact.

“That includes support for national organisations, such as Befriending Networks, Generations Working Together and Age Scotland.

“We have also provided an additional £3.8 million to expand the work of national health service mental health and well-being services.”

She added: “I urge older people who want to hear a friendly voice to contact the Age Scotland helpline, which we have supported with an additional £700,000.

“Through our Connecting Scotland programme, we will support 9,000 individuals who are considered clinically at risk and who are on a low income, including older people, with access to digital technology and training so that they can access services via the internet and remain connected to others.”

So-called silver-surfers, according to Emma Harper MSP, are into digital technology, which includes Zoom, FaceTime and other outlets.

So what’s being done for others who wish to join them going learn to use that technology?

Ms McKelvie said: “Connecting Scotland is a very exciting programme that is being delivered by the Scottish Government in partnership with local authorities.

“The programme is also supported by Healthcare Improvement Scotland, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations and the digital and information technology sectors.

“Eligible digitally excluded people will be identified by local authorities and third sector organisations and offered a device with a mobile internet data package, which will be delivered to their homes.

“A digital champion will provide phone and online support for an initial period of six months.

“After that period, the project will be evaluated to assess what support is needed in the longer term, including in rural areas.

“Training and support for digital champions is being co-ordinated by SCVO and will be delivered through local authorities and our valued third sector bodies.”

Heating bills are going up as fast as smoke up the lum, which has left old folk with increased fuel bills during the Covid-19 lockdown period.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, Shirley-Anne Somerville,  is sympathetic – “I recognise how difficult some older people will be finding the current situation, which is why, despite energy markets being a reserved issue, we have put in place additional support.

“We have committed an additional £45 million to the Scottish welfare fund to help meet immediate financial needs.

“Advice and support is also available through Home Energy Scotland, which can advocate on behalf of people with energy companies as well as refer people for financial assistance.

“We have also provided £700,000 to increase the capacity of the Age Scotland national helpline, to enable the organisation to respond to the pandemic.

“I would encourage anyone who is worried about their fuel bills to contact Home Energy Scotland or Age Scotland.”

James Halcro Johnston asked Ms Somerville to commit to monitoring how energy costs, alongside other additional expenses, may have increased for older households during the outbreak?

He asked: “Will she take into consideration those who live in Scotland’s more remote and rural communities, particularly in my Highlands and Islands region, where it may be less possible to monitor people on a day-to-day basis?”

Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “It is very important that we ensure that people who are in difficulty with fuel costs are given the support that they require. That is why we have put money into the Age Scotland helpline. In addition, Home Energy Scotland is keen to reach out and assist people.

“The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart,  wrote to the United Kingdom Government, calling on it to provide additional help with energy bills and to reassure vulnerable households with older people and people with long-term conditions that they can afford to stay in their homes and heat them.

“Given the powers that the Scottish Government has, we are keen to ensure that we keep a close eye on older people and get their feedback. We are also keen to work with stakeholders. For example, I spoke to Age Scotland yesterday to ensure that the feedback from across Scotland—including from the areas that Jamie Halcro Johnston mentioned—that it is getting from its helpline is included in our work.”

She added: “The Scottish Government is in close contact with all local authorities, which, of course administer the fund, to ensure that they are being supported and encouraged to use the Scottish Welfare Fund as proactively as possible, and that they are encouraging people to apply for it. That includes applications for assistance with fuel costs at a time of crisis.”.

Labour MSP Pauline McNeill reminded the parliament that older people are a diverse group, and some have younger people living with them.

She said: “I have written to all the energy companies. So far, they have done a decent amount. However, does the cabinet secretary agree that they could do more, especially as they are not dramatically affected by a drop in profits? We should expect them to do more to help people so that they do not build up arrears or fall into debt.”

Shirley-Anne Somerville said there was a “reserved aspect” to this – “We require some of the work to be done by the UK Government. Indeed, we have welcomed the important work that is being done by the UK Government and the energy suppliers, which includes suspending all credit meter disconnections and taking a more flexible approach to the extension of discretionary credit in relation to prepayment meters.

“There is an obligation on not only Government but the private sector, including the energy companies, to take cognisance of the situation that people find themselves in.

“This is not a time for companies to take a hard line against older people or anyone else experiencing fuel poverty. The Scottish Government is determined to ensure that it lives up to its responsibilities on the issue—just as the United Kingdom Government must.”

Leave a Reply