Frontline experts warned that some disabled households have seen their energy bills quadruple. Image: Pexels
In association with Experian
Close curtains in the evening, turn radiators off in empty rooms, invest in an electric blanket (as little as 3p per hour in electricity!). We’re all well-versed in strategies for staying warm. But the energy crisis is a global issue, borne out of the perfect post-Covid storm.
When economies began to reopen energy demand skyrocketed – but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine choked gas supplies into Europe. Wholesale gas prices soared, meaning energy suppliers paid more, then passed the cost on to customers.
But – thanks to high reliance on gas for heating, poorly insulated homes and one of the least generous benefits systems in Europe – the UK was uniquely vulnerable.
Gary and Natasha Waterhouse, near Peterborough, plus their three children are one of many families feeling extraordinary pressure. The pair married in June 2017, and four months later Natasha – now 51, who worked in admin before her diagnosis – was diagnosed with a benign tumour on her spinal cord.
After emergency surgery and five months in hospital, Natasha returned home and Gary gave up both his jobs – as a taxi driver and a duty manager at a wedding venue – to take on full-time caring duties.
“We went from a combined income of around £60,000 to existing solely on benefits,” says Gary, now 51.
“We found that really hard. It was the first time either of us were out of work since we were 14. We had credit cards, loans, interest-free credit we suddenly couldn’t afford.”
“We have to prioritise energy above everything. We have no choice,
The impact of the energy cost crisis has been “in a word, terrible”, says Gary, who receives carers’ allowance amounting to around 41p per hour.
At the same time, the family lost £80 per month from their income when ministers cut Universal Credit back to pre-Covid levels.
“We have to prioritise energy above everything. We have no choice,” he explains.
“Natasha uses a mobility scooter which has to be charged at home, her condition means we need to do laundry and use the tumble dryer daily. I use a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. We need to keep the heating on at all times or Natasha gets severe pain because her body can’t regulate her temperature.
“Despite energy being an absolute necessity for us, our supplier put us on a pre-payment meter when we fell into arrears,” Gary says. “That means, if we run out of cash, we’re pretty much screwed.”
From January next year, Ofgem’s energy price cap will rise to £4,279 for the average annual household bill. People won’t actually pay that much for the time being, thanks to the government’s energy price guarantee, limiting the cap to around £2,500 (increasing to £3,000 from April).
But this is done via subsidies, meaning the cash still comes out of the public purse. And households like Gary’s, trying to work their way out of arrears, still see most of what they spend to top up their meters taken to repay debt.
“We started having to use a foodbank because all our money had to go on energy,” Gary says, recalling how he turned up there in tears. “It was very tough. But they were good, they sorted me out with a voucher and really listened.”
On top of caring duties Gary has returned to taxi driving, trying to stay close to home or arrange extra care if he is going on longer journeys.
“It pays towards the bills and means we can afford food, but I don’t like it to be detrimental to my care for Natasha,” he explains.
Gary and Natasha want to speak out to help others feel less alone.
They credit anti-poverty charity Turn2us, and its online benefits calculator, for guiding them through the worst of their difficulties. It helped them to discover what cash support they were entitled to, from council tax discounts to local authority household support.
Peter Smith, director of policy for charity National Energy Action (NEA), says the energy crisis is “totally decimating” households.
“We’re in the eye of the storm right now, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to abate any time soon,” he says. There has been an increase of around 180 per cent in people contacting NEA for support compared to this time last year.
People on the lowest incomes are worst affected, Smith explains, but households who were “just about managing” on median incomes are now in “desperate situations” trying to stay on top of energy bills.
“There’s no more slack in the household budget. There’s nothing else to cut,” he says.
“The government’s universal support provides some support to households that don’t need it at all and doesn’t provide deep enough support to those people that really need it. Sadly, millions of households are falling through the cracks.”
Of the 27 million households affected by the energy crisis, around three million face the higher living costs that come with disability – an extra £600 per month, according to charity Scope.
Families like Gary and Natasha’s don’t even have the choice between heating or eating due to their reliance on life-saving equipment.
“We have heard from disabled people whose bills have quadrupled this year,” says Tom Marsland, policy manager for Scope, which saw a 670 per cent increase in referrals to its energy support helpline in 12 months from September 2021 to 2022.
Scope is calling on the government to develop a social energy tariff, to provide discounted rates for people on lower incomes and using more energy, while urging ministers to reverse eligibility changes to the warm home discount that exclude 300,000 disabled people.
But right now people are “anxious and isolated”, says Marsland.
“One caller had medicine that needed to be kept in the fridge but was being cut off by their supplier.
“It’s hard to exaggerate these dire situations.”
NEA’s Smith advises: “More than anything, it’s vital that people seek out the energy efficiency programmes that are there.
“But remember, energy efficiency isn’t about reducing your energy demands, it’s about installing stuff that can reduce your energy consumption like better insulation.
“But if you’re living on an income of £8,000 a year and your energy bills are £3,500, you’re not going to offset that by closing your curtains earlier in the day.”
Struggling with your energy bills? Here’s where to get help