Stevie Wise, a 36-year-old nail technician from Manchester, is very worried about her bills this winter. Image: Supplied
Stevie Wise was diagnosed with breast cancer six weeks ago and is consumed with worry. It is not just the illness and surgery she has to face in the months ahead. She is also anxious about how she is going to pay for her energy bills, food and the essentials she needs to survive this winter despite Ofgem’s decision to lower the energy price cap.
A self-employed nail technician with her own shop in Manchester, the 36-year-old will be taking time off work over the next few months to recover from a mastectomy and potentially face further invasive treatment. That means no money coming in as the bitterly cold weather nears.
“I was already worried about bills going up,” Wise says. “I live on my own with my dog. I was worried about the cost of living. Now I’m waiting for a date to have the surgery, and the recovery is pretty brutal. I’m going to have to take at least a couple of months off.”
Ofgem has announced a new energy price cap, with average annual household energy bills expected to fall to £1,923 from October. But although this is a slight drop in the amount people will pay for gas and electricity, experts warn bills are still “dangerously high”.
It will leave 6.3 million households living in fuel poverty, unable to heat their homes, according to National Energy Action. Last year people were helped by a £400 energy support scheme, a lifeline for many households, but the government has not extended that this year.
“The price cap does not protect those who simply cannot afford the cost of keeping warm,” says Adam Scorer, the chief executive of National Energy Action. “That requires direct government intervention through bill support, social tariffs and energy efficiency.”
For Wise, the high bills are an added pressure she does not need. “There’s a lot of hidden costs with an illness like this. I’m going to need people to stay over and look after me after my surgery, so I’m going to have to buy a sofa bed. I’m going to have to batch cook. I’ve had to buy button-up pyjamas because I’m not going to be able to raise my hands over my head.”
Research from the Resolution Foundation revealed more than one in three households in England will face higher energy bills this winter than last. That is 7.2 million households. This is because although the price per unit of energy is falling, this will be offset by a rise in the daily standing charge.
Jonathan Marshall, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, says: “This increase will be particularly acute for England’s poorest families, a quarter of whom will spend at least £100 more on energy bills this winter compared to last year. With these energy bill increases coming on top of a prolonged period of fast-rising food and housing costs, the cost of living squeeze is far from over.”
A recent survey from Which? found that people living in 13 million British homes did not turn on their heating when cold last winter. That’s almost half of all households, at a time when the government was offering more help with energy bills to get people through the cost of living crisis.
“This last year, it’s not been too bad because of the help that the government put in place,” Wise says. “It’s been manageable. But last month, my electricity bill was 75 quid. I can just about afford that with my rent and everything else. But then if I’m not working, and I’ve got all these other costs… And that’s in the summer.
“If bills just keep going up and up, I’m really worried about it. I was thinking about buying one of those heated blankets. But I’ve literally got cancer. I would like to be able to have money to put on the heating but I don’t know if I can.”
Wise also has to cover the costs of her Manchester shop. The rent is all-inclusive, but she is on a three-month contract. Her rent has gone up three times in the last year because of the cost of energy.
Her friends have rallied together and created a fundraiser, which has raised nearly £10,000. But this will only be enough to cover rent on her shop. Energy bills are expected to rise slightly again in January, with forecasts from Cornwall Insight predicting that the cap will be set at £1,932.24.
“Food prices are through the roof,” Wise adds. “My lease is up on my flat next month, and I don’t know whether to tell my landlord about my illness now, because I don’t want him to put the rent up because I can’t afford it. But if I tell him now, will he just evict me because he can?”
Wise is currently in limbo as she waits for a date for surgery. There is a backlog after more than a decade of cuts to public services and the pandemic has left the healthcare system under significant pressure. There are strikes which are causing delays too, which Wise is sympathetic to as healthcare professionals themselves are struggling with the cost of living.
Wise is calling on the government to act. “We’ve seen the numbers coming out from energy companies that are making the biggest profits they’ve ever made. I understand it’s difficult for the government to find money, but it wouldn’t be if they took some of those profits.
“They need to be doing something to increase their own revenue so that they can help people because, even though the cap is coming down a bit, it’s not enough. People can’t afford to live.”
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.