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Energy crisis could be ‘national emergency’ for older people

Written by: Emma Lunn
Age UK has demanded immediate government action to prevent millions more households falling into fuel poverty as energy costs rocket.

Experts predict that energy bills could rise by up to 50% this spring, adding about £600 to the average annual bill. The charity warns that this massive increase could trigger a national emergency for millions of older people.

The charity has written to the secretaries of state for business, energy and industrial strategy (Kwasi Kwarteng) and for work and pensions (Thérèse Coffey) calling for immediate action to protect vulnerable older people from the cold this winter. 

This is the second letter from Age UK in as many months urging ministers to take decisive action on energy bills to mitigate the potentially devastating impact of the escalating crisis. It says rising bills will be ‘nothing short of catastrophic’ for many older people without intervention.

The letter also underscores the need for longer-term thinking about how older people with the least ability to pay can be protected from energy price rises in the future. 

The latest government figures show that about 930,000 pensioners (8%) say they could not afford an unexpected bill of £200. 

With older people typically at home more than younger age groups and feel the cold to a much greater extent, the prediction of a bill increase in the region of £600 is likely to be a significant underestimation for many.

Many older people are already putting their health at risk by rationing their food and heating to keep their bills down. For example, Age UK has heard of older people who are too worried to use their oven and are living on soup and sandwiches instead; showering only every two days rather than daily; and constantly watching their smart meter.

The charity points out that financial support for older people during the colder months has remained broadly unchanged for years and is nowhere near enough to match the scale of the current problem. 

Age UK is calling for the government to cut the 5% rate of VAT from all household’s energy bills from April till at least the end of 2022, and also provide additional support payments of up to £500 to older people on the lowest incomes. 

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, 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. Make no mistake, this situation will have a devastating impact on the health of our older population unless the government intervenes quickly and takes their fears away. 

“Older people, particularly those living on low fixed incomes, urgently need reassurance from the government that they can afford to keep warm when low temperatures demand it, without going into debt – something most dread and will do anything to avoid. 

“Ministers will have to go considerably further than offering token gestures of financial support such as adding £10 per 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.”

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