Food or Fuel? The Human Cost of the Energy Crisis
Rising gas prices have prompted panic about Brexit, bail-outs and bills – but for poor families and the NHS, this crisis could not come at a worse moment
Households are waking up to a panic about gas supply chain issues, energy suppliers demanding bail-out or bust, and the rising costs of energy as winter sets in.
The crisis, which the Prime Minister has labelled as “temporary” and caused by “the world waking up from pandemic shutdowns like everyone going to put the kettle on at the end of a TV programme”, has seen gas prices soar to 180p ‘per therm’. One woman tweeted that her bills had risen from £36 to £100 a week.
Industry group Oil & Gas UK has said that wholesale prices for gas have increased by 250% since January. This includes a 70% rise since August.
The energy crisis comes in advance of the UK hosting the COP26 climate crisis conference, where climate activists hope world leaders will discuss how to diversify energy production away from fossil fuels and gas.
But, while the focus is on Brexit, bail-outs and booming prices, less attention has been paid to the impact on an already existing crisis of fuel poverty.
Food or Fuel?
According to the most recent Government data, 3.18 million people live in fuel poverty as measured by the LILEE metric in 2019. The UK is ranked last out of 16 countries in western Europe for the proportion of people who cannot afford to heat their home to an adequate temperature.
The metric states that a household is in fuel poverty if – once it has spent the required amount to heat the home – it is left with a residual income below the poverty line. It must also be living in a property with a fuel poverty energy efficiency rating of ‘band D’ or below.
However, even before the most recent escalation in gas prices, back in July it was estimated that 400,000 more UK homes were heading towards fuel poverty this winter. Now, these numbers could be set to rise again.
The rise in fuel prices and its impact on fuel poverty comes at a time when vulnerable families are already facing a threat to their income.
The Government has committed to plans to cut the temporary Universal Credit uplift, worth £20 a week and introduced to help struggling households during the Coronavirus crisis. The cut will impact nearly six million people, including 1.9 million families with children, and cost an average of £1,040 a year. The average loss is equivalent to six days’ worth of energy costs before this crisis, or three days’ worth of food costs for a low-income family. More than one-third – 38% – of those impacted by the cut are in work, meaning that many households will also be hit by the increase in National Insurance contributions, designed to boost NHS funding and fix the social care crisis.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that around two million families on low incomes who receive Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit will pay an extra £100 a year in National Insurance contributions under the Government’s proposed changes. At the same time, many will be losing £20 a week.
The combination of increased taxation, decreased benefits, and rocketing fuel prices risks causing a crisis in fuel poverty which, in turn, is likely to place more pressure on an NHS already struggling with the winter load.
Death and Disease
Around 11,400 of winter deaths are caused by cold homes, linked to people unable to adequately heat their homes. Analysis by Public Health England from 2012/13 found that 10% of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to fuel poverty and that more people die from cold homes than from alcohol, Parkinson’s Disease or traffic accidents.
The charity Age UK reports that, every seven minutes, an older person dies from the cold.
Cold temperatures are linked to respiratory disease and circulatory problems, with coronary events more likely to be fatal in cold conditions.
Living in a cold home has an impact on mental as well as physical health. This was particularly true of children: Public Health England found that 10% of children in cold homes reported feeling unhappy, compared to 2% in warm homes.
Children living in cold, damp and mouldy homes have also been found to be up to three times more likely to develop symptoms of asthma than children living in warm and dry homes.
The health problems caused by cold homes cost the NHS £1.36 billion every year.