Millions of older people in the UK are facing an energy emergency, with a leading charity saying people are being forced to switch off their heating, limit hot showers and live off soup and sandwiches to pay their increased energy bills.
Age UK has urged ministers to take immediate and decisive action to “mitigate the potentially devastating impact of the escalating crisis” caused by rising energy bills, which could go up by another 50% in April.
In a letter this week to Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, and Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, the charity said it was concerned that “many older people on low incomes already feel under so much financial pressure that they are rationing their energy use”.
“For example, we have heard from older people who are too worried to use their oven and are living off soup and sandwiches instead, showering only every two days rather than daily, and constantly watching their smart meter and turning their heating off once their daily spending exceeds the meagre limit they have set,” Age UK said.
Older energy bill payers are more likely to live in fuel poverty, which is expected to reach record highs in the UK this year because of increased gas and electricity costs. The global gas crisis caused the fastest rise in energy bills on record in October, and the average bill could increase further by April to cover the cost of bankrupt suppliers.
Consumer groups and energy suppliers have repeatedly called on the government to act. Their proposals include the Treasury cutting the 5% rate of VAT on energy bills, moving green levies into general taxation, and helping to defer the cost of protecting customers affected by the collapse of dozens of suppliers in recent months.
Age UK said the government must reassure older householders that they would not “face an energy bill in the spring that will be beyond their means to pay”.
Age UK’s charity director, Caroline Abrahams, said: “The astronomical hike in energy prices now widely anticipated has already forced many deeply anxious older people on low incomes to turn their heating down below what is comfortable or advisable, with some switching it off altogether for some or all of the day and night.
“This situation will have a devastating impact on the health of our older population unless the government intervenes quickly and takes their fears away.”
She added: “Ministers will have to go considerably further than offering token gestures of financial support such as adding £10 a year to the Warm Home Discount Scheme from next year. Energy price rises on the scale we are now seeing are unprecedented and the government’s response must be equal to the threat they pose to older people living on low and modest incomes.”
Age UK has urged older people to call its free national advice line before turning their heating off or down to make sure they are receiving all the financial support available.