Fuel Poverty leads to 20% increase in Winter Deaths

Person huddling next to radiator for warmth

Excess winter deaths caused by fuel poverty rose by almost 20% last year, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data.

As winter begins to creep in across the UK, some of the country’s most vulnerable will begin the annual struggle of staying warm at home due to fuel poverty. While those that are affected try and cope as best they can, through rationing energy use and seeking refuge in warm places, such as libraries or cafes, for many it can become a choice of eating or heating. According to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, one-third of older people living on a low income will cut back on food, while two-thirds will try to reduce their energy consumption this winter.

New figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed there were 28,300 excess deaths in winter last year - a 20% increase on the previous winter. Of these cases, the charity National Energy Action (NEA) claim 8,500 were due to conditions linked to living in fuel poverty. There are fears that this winter could be worse still, with the added effect that COVID-19 will have.

What is fuel poverty?

Fuel poverty is one of the main causes for cold living conditions and is largely driven by three factors:

  1. Income
  2. Energy prices
  3. Home energy efficiency

A household is considered to be fuel poor if it needs to spend more than 10% of all income on fuel to keep the home satisfactorily warm. According to the government's most recent statistics, 10.3% of all households in England were living in fuel poverty.

What are the effects of fuel poverty?

Illustration of a radiator

Living in fuel poverty can take a toll on both physical and mental health, and affects all age groups.

Research has shown that living in a cold and damp home can lead to health issues such as respiratory diseases, heart diseases and circulatory diseases, particularly for the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.

As well as the physical health problems associated with living in cold temperatures, doing so can also have increased ill effects on mental health and wellbeing, with both anxiety and depression having been linked to fuel poverty.

National Energy Action (NEA) has warned that the coming winter could be one of the worst ever for those living in fuel poor housing, due to the added impact of COVID-19.

Adam Scorer, the chief executive of NEA says: “Cold homes can cause or worsen a range of serious health conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, bronchitis and asthma.

“This year, the situation is even more desperate. Lockdown and increasing unemployment will create a situation where more people are forced to spend time in homes they can’t afford to heat. Many people will use more, pay more and owe more, while earning considerably less.”

While some fuel poor households attempt to cut heating bills by rationing their energy use or crowding into one heated room, there is concern that doing so will only increase the spread of the coronavirus.

Scorer says: “The same health conditions impacted by cold indoor temperatures place people at greater risk of COVID-19.

“And many coping strategies which people normally employ to get through the winter months, such as only having one heated room for the family to socialise in, could also increase the spread of infection.

“This not only threatens more lives but hampers collective efforts to reduce infection and prevent the NHS from being breached. There are so many people who rely on libraries, cafés, pubs and neighbours as warm and safe havens during the winter. These may be denied to them during lockdown.”

Earlier this year, NEA and Energy Action Scotland published a report into the effect the lockdown was having on those living in fuel poverty. The study found fuel poor households increasing their energy usage, due to spending more time at home, a reduction in income due to furloughed or lost jobs and subsequent energy rationing.

Government figures show that a disproportionate number of fuel poor homes are based in ‘tier three’ areas, where tighter restrictions are in place due to a very high or rapidly rising level of local COVID-19 infections. There are fears that restrictions in these areas could last beyond 2 December and only worsen the situation for those living in fuel poverty.

Softening the impact of fuel poverty

At the outbreak of the pandemic, the government worked with energy providers in introducing emergency measures to ensure all customers were able to maintain their electricity supply, including help to pay energy bills and top up prepayment meters.

There is also support available for those living in cold homes or experiencing fuel poverty government home energy grants and schemes.

Support available includes benefits to help pay energy bills, fund a boiler repair or replacement and to install insulation. However, not everyone who qualifies for this assistance accesses it or even realises that they are eligible.

Which energy grants and schemes could I qualify for this winter?

There are a number of energy grants and schemes available to support those who need help meeting their gas and electricity costs this winter.

Warm Home Discount

The Warm Home Discount is a one-off rebate of £140 that is taken off energy bills between October and March for those who qualify. Contact your energy supplier to find out if they participate in the scheme.

Winter Fuel Payment

This is an annual government grant for retired and elderly people to help with winter heating costs. The Winter Fuel Payment ranges between £100 and £300 and is not means-tested.

Cold Weather Payment

The Cold Weather Payment is a one-off payment of £25 available when temperatures in your area drop to 0ºC or below for seven consecutive days or more. You must already be claiming certain types of benefits, such as Pension Credit, Income Support or Jobseeker’s allowance to be eligible.

Pension Credit

This is a tax-free, means-tested benefit for low-income retirees. There are two parts to Pension Credit:

  1. Guarantee Credit
  2. Savings Credit

The Guarantee Credit element tops up weekly earnings to £173.75 if you are single or £265.20 if you claim as a couple. Those who qualify for Guarantee Credit also receive the Warm Home Discount automatically.

Energy Company Obligation (ECO)

The ECO scheme is a government-backed initiative to reduce carbon emissions and reduce heating costs for households that qualify for the scheme.

Larger energy suppliers are legally obliged to install energy efficiency measures, such as insulation, double glazing and draught-proofing. Depending on your circumstances, you could even be eligible for subsidised boiler repairs or replacement.

Green Homes Grant

The Green Homes Grant is a scheme to help homeowners and landlords in England cover the cost of certain energy and money-saving home improvements, including insulation and low-carbon heating. The grant is issued as vouchers worth up to £5,000, or £10,000 if you receive certain benefits.

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