Social Justice

Pandemic fuel poverty forcing people to choose between heating and food

More than 90 per cent of people surveyed by the Fuel Bank Foundation were stuck in fuel poverty, rationing their use of heating and hot water in lockdown

People are falling into fuel poverty under lockdown restrictions

Households across the UK have been hit by a rise in wholesale gas prices.

The number of people in fuel poverty and seeking emergency help from the Fuel Bank Foundation to pay their fuel bills has risen by nearly a quarter during the Covid-19 crisis, with centres in some areas recording a 300 per cent increase in demand.

Lockdown restrictions mean people are spending more time at home, driving up their gas and electricity usage at a time when pandemic redundancies and income cuts have placed extra financial pressure on families.

The Fuel Bank Foundation (FBF) surveyed 381 people, all of whom had been supported by the organisation in the past. Nearly all (96 per cent) said they were still experiencing fuel poverty, or experiencing it again during the Covid-19 crisis. They reported having to choose between keeping their homes warm or buying food for their family.

The research paints “a stark picture of how difficult life currently is for many vulnerable families and individuals,” according to Matthew Cole, the organisation’s chair of trustees.

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“Running out of fuel completely and having meters switched off is the worst-case scenario,” he added.

“The majority of those who end up in this situation were or had been borrowing money from friends or family and using emergency credit on their meter. It’s like they have exhausted their options for support and have no choice but to disconnect.”

More than 90 per cent of respondents said they have had to ration heating and hot water during lockdown. 

The organisation operates more than 140 centres across the UK, giving £49 fuel vouchers to families for prepayment meters. The Big Issue recently partnered with the FBF to ensure people selling the magazine can access support through regional offices.

More than 15 million people in the UK live in poverty, with 700,000 people pushed into hardship during the Covid-19 crisis.

Nearly 90 per cent of people surveyed said they were struggling to top up gas and electricity meters in lockdown. More than 80 per cent were also struggling to afford household bills such as food and water.

“Technical solutions alone will always struggle to solve social issues,” said Dr Elizabeth Blakelock, principal policy manager for energy at Citizens Advice.

“That’s why lived experience always needs to be centred in decision making.”

Last week energy regulator Ofgem announced it would raise the price cap on energy bills by £96 from April. 

The increase will affect around 15 million households, in the same month when the Government is set to cut Universal Credit by £80 a month. Alastair Cromwell, acting chief executive at Citizens Advice, called the hike “a heavy blow to a lot of households”.

Most people were turning to the FBF after borrowing money from friends and family to keep their meter running. Others ran out of money for fuel entirely and their meters were switched off.

Being unable to pay for heating and electricity, as well as hot water to cook and clean, had a significant impact on people’s mental health, the study showed. 

“We know that fuel poverty has a detrimental effect on people’s physical health,” Cole said.

“For example, living in a cold home increases the risk of serious illness and even death, particularly among the elderly. However, the impact on mental health is less understood.

“The people we spoke to mentioned struggling with mental health as a result of money, food and living worries. By having their physical wellbeing improved, there was a sense of relief from these worries, if just in the short-term.”

The “hidden” nature of fuel poverty is particularly damaging, the report noted. The organisation called for efforts to recognise it as a poverty issue rather than one for energy suppliers.

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