How having a mobile phone can save your life – Karyn McCluskey

For vulnerable and poor people, having £20-worth of credit in a pay-as-you-go mobile phone can be the difference between life and death, writes Karyn McCluskey.
Children can sometimes seem addicted to a mobile phone but such technology has become a vital tool in the modern world, particularly during lockdown (Picture: John Devlin)Children can sometimes seem addicted to a mobile phone but such technology has become a vital tool in the modern world, particularly during lockdown (Picture: John Devlin)
Children can sometimes seem addicted to a mobile phone but such technology has become a vital tool in the modern world, particularly during lockdown (Picture: John Devlin)

After years of trying to wean my teenager and me off a general addiction to mobile phones, since this lockdown began I fear I may have lost the battle.

As a generation Z’er, her addiction stretches way past mine and has been the source of constant friction over the years as, instead of looking up and around, she looked at Instagram, Snapchat and a whole range of apps that have come and gone.

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I was once invited to speak at Cambridge in a beautiful old college and took her along – my fellow speaker was Albie Sachs, the judge and ANC activist, who fought against apartheid, was jailed, and blown up in car bomb that took his arm and his eye. On introducing her to him, she gave him an uninterested glace and then returned to Snapchat. Philistine.

However, access to phones has become a lifeline. It’s not about the newest model, but just the ability to maintain contact and access the services you need. No longer can you just turn up at a service – whether a GP or other local service you desperately need. Now phoning to make an appointment is critical.

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Many of us think that everyone has access to this, either the rapidly disappearing house landline or mobile. The reality is somewhat different. Family support workers I met while on the Renfrewshire drug and alcohol group told me of families with no credit on their phones who couldn’t contact the GP and had to ask the family workers to borrow their phones to make any urgent calls. Of children whose access at home to the online world and education is stymied by lack of wifi or of technology in the first place.

Getting a phone contract requires a credit history and an income. The choice of whether to top up your phone or buy essentials for your family shouldn’t be something we tolerate, especially now when the ability to remotely contact others is critical, whether to phone NHS 24 to report symptoms or access a GP or a dentist. So many of the third sector have been getting phones into the hands of those who need it most; the homeless, the isolated, those being supervised by justice workers. Those who now are leaving the prison estate are entering a brave new world, and navigating it will require more skills than many possess. Providing a list of numbers and the ability to contact services – in an effort to make life easier and less like an episode of the Krypton Factor – is, one could argue, an essential service.

I worry most for those in addiction and recovery who have no access to a mobile. The warm body of the recovery community has moved online, they check up, text and are always at the end of a phone for those seeking to leave drugs, or those worried that their recovery is in jeopardy.

A cheap pay-as-you-go phone and £20-worth of credit can be a matter of life and death. Literally. Addiction can leave you isolated, family ties destroyed but there are people who care, who are at the end of a line. As I see the stories of tax-avoiding multi-millionaires seeking government money to support them, I wonder where the beating heart of the country really is.

When this is done, I don’t want to see my phone for a long time. I want to see people, give them a hug, tell them how I have missed them, but until then my phone is my salvation in a world of isolation.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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