Britain’s soaring energy costs strain crisis responders

Across Britain this winter, more people are falling into debt and sitting in cold or damp homes as a result of rising energy bills. PHOTO: NYTIMES

GLOUCESTER, England – The day after an arctic blast of air hit Britain, plunging temperatures below freezing and blanketing the country in frost, a 72-year-old man finally got through to the advice phone line of Warm and Well, a charitable service in Gloucestershire, in the west of England.

The man, whose name was not disclosed, said he had been calling for days and leaving voicemail messages with the nonprofit, which provides advice and emergency funds for people struggling to pay their energy bills.

Ms Teresa Hewitt, the energy adviser who answered his call, could only commiserate. “We are absolutely overwhelmed at the moment,” she told him. She was one of seven staff members answering the phones that day in early December who were attempting to field 71 calls.

Across Britain this winter, more people are falling into debt and sitting in cold or damp homes as a result of rising energy bills, which have helped push the country’s inflation rate above 10 per cent.

This sharp increase in what is called “fuel poverty”, when 10 per cent of household income is spent on energy bills, is stretching the resources of charities that provide free advice, emergency funds or resources to get access to heat and improve home energy efficiency. With limited staff and inflation-depleted resources, these groups have been hunting for more creative ways to reach vulnerable households.

Those efforts include having doctors in Gloucestershire prescribe heat to patients who are at risk of being hospitalised because of the cold. Some charities are handing out blankets, thermos flasks and thick socks.

“The numbers of people that are experiencing hardship now are kind of unimaginable compared to where they were even a year or so back,” said Mr Peter Sumby, the director of communities at the nonprofit National Energy Action.

The group estimates that 6.7 million households are in fuel poverty. And in a survey published this month by the Office for National Statistics, nearly one-quarter of adults said they were struggling to keep their living rooms warm recently, while one-third said cutting back on their heating was harming their health or well-being.

Mr Sumby said his nonprofit was resorting to “cobbled-together solutions to help people get through the winter”, including packs with blankets, packets of hot chocolate powder and draft-proofing items. “That is clearly a crisis response,” he said.

In the past six months, calls to the National Energy Action’s advice line have tripled from the previous six months. The line has now been shut down until the new year because of the overwhelming number of calls and a backlog of referrals.

Since the beginning of September, Severn Wye, the nonprofit that runs Warm and Well and other services in the region, has helped more than 2,600 households, 1,000 more than the same time last year. Meanwhile, the phones never stop ringing. There have been nearly 9,000 phone calls since April.

The British government plans to spend £25 billion pounds (S$40.5 billion) to cap energy rates this winter, but the typical household will still face gas and electric bills of £2,500 a year on average, double what they were a year ago. In April, the annual cap will rise to £3,000.

In the Gloucester office of Warm and Well, Ms Hewitt discovered there was little she could do for the 72-year-old man on the phone. He wanted help getting money to increase the insulation in his house.

Poor building insulation is a chronic problem in Britain, which is reputed to have the draftiest homes in Europe, and progress on insulation faltered over a decade ago. The government recently set aside another £1 billion for insulation, but this caller was ineligible for this and older grants.

But then, almost incidentally, the man revealed something troubling: He and his wife were sitting in their living room, which was just 17 deg C.

That was several degrees colder than the recommended temperature for people their age who spend a lot of time at home. To keep up with their increasingly expensive energy bills, the man said, they had been keeping the heating low or off, wearing extra layers and piling the bed with blankets at night. Ms Hewitt urged them to raise the thermostat to 20 deg C and directed them to other help if they fell behind on their bills.

Across Europe, governments are spending heavily to shield their populations from rising energy costs and have spent months encouraging households to commit to energy-saving measures such as turning thermostats down a degree or taking shorter showers.

Britain last Saturday rolled out a nationwide energy-saving advice campaign, which includes urging people to unplug appliances when they are not in use and reduce the settings on boilers.

By the time this campaign began, fuel poverty charities were already inundated with cries for help.

Amid this immense pressure, there is a novel approach at work in Gloucestershire. This winter, some doctors will be able to prescribe heat to particularly vulnerable patients; the prescription means they will then get sizeable help paying their energy bills.

The programme is designed to both help people facing acute trouble paying to heat their homes and ease the strain on the National Health Service, which, by some measures, has been pushed to the brink of collapse by a shortage of beds and a staffing crisis. It targets financially struggling people with severe respiratory conditions who are at risk of getting chest infections.

After a small pilot programme last winter, it will aim to reach 150 households this winter, with money distributed by Severn Wye and provided by the local council.

“Normally I’m rushing to people’s houses when they’re sick, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, do you need to go to hospital?’” said Dr Hein Le Roux, one of the doctors taking part in the programme. Being able to think holistically about health care and prevent people from getting sicker is “actually a luxury moment”, he said. NYTIMES

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