Demand for green doctors has surged in the last few months. Image: Groundwork
Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear black shirts with bright tags and call themselves ‘green doctors’. These frontline workers offer a different kind of emergency service – helping people struggling with their energy bills.
“They are not just saving people money. They are saving people full stop,” says Andy Pinches, who manages a team of green doctors in Greater Manchester.
There are teams across the country who visit people living in fuel poverty and attempt to give them the tools they need to survive. A green doctor will offer them free advice to help them take control of their bills, save energy in the home, and access other services and support.
Their skills are needed more than ever. When bills go up again in April, 8.4 million people are expected to be living in fuel poverty, according to National Energy Action. That’s nearly triple the figure in 2020.
“It’s a whole different ball game,” Simon Kilshaw, who heads up the team in Yorkshire, remarks. “In the home, we can really give that bespoke tailored advice. Most energy advice programmes don’t do that.”
Green doctors notice the mould growing in the corner of someone’s cold, damp living room. They spot the cracks in the windows letting in freezing air, and the littered signs a person is battling with their mental health.
There is no denying it’s a hard job, and one that’s only going to get more difficult in the next few months. It’s worth pointing out that green doctors have been working to tackle fuel poverty for 15 years, but these are levels never seen before. Demand has tripled over the last couple of months alone.
“It’s gone through the roof,” Pinches says. “We’ve seen a massive uptick in people who need immediate emergency support, as well as general support with debts and bills. There will be a lot of people who are really going to struggle in this cold weather.”
The support they give varies depending on each specific situation – and it’s all free. They provide ‘warm packs’ with hats, gloves and blankets. They speak to energy suppliers on a person’s behalf and negotiate better payment plans.
Green doctors help alleviate people’s anxiety by explaining what discounts and support are available to them and find available charitable grants. They give tips on making their homes more energy efficient and install devices which will keep their bills down.
“It’s first and foremost energy, but it’s never just energy,” Pinches says. “Somebody might have a debt on their energy bill but it’s fundamentally to do with a backlog of benefits or a debt with a housing provider or they’ve been scammed. The root cause is somewhere else.”
Green doctors make sure vulnerable people are on the priority services register, and they have strong connections with other charities and local services so they can refer people for further help.
The green doctors service is part of Groundwork, a group of charities mobilising practical community action on poverty and the environment.
Another senior green doctor, David Carrasco, says: “The energy prices are so high that people would rather just take out their meter and have no heating. They might use electric heaters instead, but that’s more costly.”
According to figures from the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, 15 per cent of vulnerable people have stopped topping up their meters and cut themselves off from energy. A further 51 per cent of vulnerable people are now rationing their energy use. This means they are living in cold, damp homes which have adverse effects on their health.
“It is emotionally draining,” Kilshaw says. “You are going to people who are in difficult circumstances. They can be frustrated. They can be wound up because they know they’re not getting enough and they are living in an unjust society. You might be leaving someone with no heating, and you know there is not much you can do.”
Kilshaw says his team recently supported an elderly man who was leaving his oven door open for hours to keep his home warm, leaving himself at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“You meet people at their lowest point,” Carrasco says. “You see elderly people just sitting in the cold with layers and layers on just so afraid of turning on the heating and it’s just very sad to see. It can be pretty devastating.”
But it is also rewarding work, and they are making genuine differences to people’s lives. Carrasco says there are people he will never forget – like the man in his 90s with terminal cancer, who hadn’t had a washing machine in years.
He delivered a washing machine to his front door in London. It was in the middle of the pandemic, so Carrasco stood from afar and waved to him. The elderly man had tears in his eyes and said: “David, thank you so much.”
He also helped a mother struggling with her mental health to clear a debt to her energy supplier by applying for a grant. “It was a really rewarding experience,” Carrasco says. “Hearing afterwards that she had a weight taken off her shoulders, it really does feel good.”
Kilshaw adds: “That’s what Groundwork is about. It’s about making a difference. Charities don’t pay the same wages that corporate organisations do, but we’re doing it because we want to make a difference and make a more just society in some way.
“We’re trying to lobby for change. We’ve got the grassroots on the ground work, but we’re also looking at how we can influence things on different levels to make big changes.”
Over 95 per cent of green doctors say current government support is not enough to address the needs of the households they support.
Kilshaw suggests a social tariff on energy bills could help protect people who are struggling. “I’d like to see a waiver of standing charges for the most vulnerable people,” he says. “That social energy tariff will include people who have medical needs and have to use electricity-based equipment in some ways. There’s no concession for that. They are punished again, just because they’re ill. It’s not their fault.”
Where there isn’t enough support for people living in poverty, the green doctors are there to step in. Each frontline worker says it is painful knowing they will never be able to do enough – they often think about the people they left behind in a cold home, because they just didn’t have enough resources and they cannot perform miracles.
As the cost of living crisis hits people who have never experienced poverty before, charities cannot bring down the bills or give people enough money to get them through the winter. But their message is this: there is help out there, and they will continue doing everything they can to make a difference.
The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.
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