The Covid-19 crisis has pushed more than half a million people into debt on their fuel bills, new research shows, and more than two million are behind on payments.
The Citizens Advice findings “confirm the worst fears” about the impact of stay at home advice during winter, fuel poverty campaigners said, calling for fuel debt relief from the Government.
More than two million households are behind on their energy payments, the report said, meaning 600,000 more people have fallen into debt since the pandemic gripped the UK.
A quarter of the adults surveyed said they were worried about being unable to afford fuel bills this winter. This suggests up to seven million households had similar concerns heading into the colder months.
“The findings are truly shocking,” End Fuel Poverty Coalition coordinator Simon Francis told The Big Issue.
“They confirm the worst fears that a double whammy of stay at home instructions during colder weather would lead to more people in fuel poverty.
Energy bills soared an estimated 37% during the last lockdown. #Lockdown2 could see even worse hikes as energy use at home spikes. Households will need urgent support now or face the devastating impact of #fuelpoverty. https://t.co/rvyPDfyFjT
— End Fuel Poverty Coalition (@EndFuelPoverty) December 15, 2020
“Given we are so early on in the winter season and the worst weather is still to come, we need urgent action from energy firms and government to support those in fuel poverty.
“The time for fuel poverty debt relief, not just deferral of bills, is now.”
Those who have not come to a repayment arrangement with their supplier owe an average £760 for electricity and £605 for gas, Citizens Advice said.
The charity is urging suppliers to double down on proactive support for customers who fall into hardship during the pandemic after 59 per cent of people said the options they were offered after plunging into debt were helpful.
But the research showed one in seven people who tried to contact their supplier couldn’t get through, while call waiting times have increased for two thirds of suppliers – something campaigners say can pose a significant barrier to vulnerable people looking for help.
Energy companies “make finding phone numbers difficult” and are failing to respond to customer emails within two working days, the report said.
The full financial impacts of the pandemic are still to be felt
Suppliers should focus on offering additional support such as payment holidays or temporary prepay credit, according to Citizens Advice.
They also called for the government to make sure the hardest hit households are supported this winter through fuel vouchers, and said ministers should provide extra funding to help people not covered by existing schemes like the Covid Winter Grant – a £170 million fund for local authorities to help struggling families with food and bills.
“The government and the energy industry have put in place significant measures to support people’s incomes and help those struggling with their bills,” Citizens Advice acting chief executive Alistair Cromwell said.
“We’re heading into the coldest months of the year and the full financial impacts of the pandemic are still to be felt. Maintaining high customer service standards is more critical than ever in order to make sure energy customers who get into difficulty can access the support they need.”