Tackling Fuel Poverty – the Implications of Covid-19

By William Baker, Aimee Ambrose, Jenny Brierley, Danielle Butler, Robert Marchand, Graeme Sherriff

*All authors affiliated to the Fuel Poverty Research Network

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting low income energy consumers hard. Short term policies have provided temporary help. However, in the long term we need policies to improve home energy standards.

While total energy consumption has declined due to shutting down large sections of the economy, domestic consumption has increased. Recent research reveals that lockdown measures have cost the average energy consumer an extra £32 per month. These costs are likely to be higher for people in homes with poor energy standards – it costs £2,000pa more to heat a home rated EPC G to adequate standards than a home rated EPC C or above.

The Government, Ofgem and energy industry agreement to support low income and vulnerable consumers has provided temporary respite from disconnection and repayment of fuel debts. However, fuel suppliers still expect consumers to repay the amounts owed. Many low income consumers will worry about paying the extra fuel costs entailed by lockdown. Many will ration their fuel use. Furthermore, in just a few months we could see a ‘perfect storm’ of cold homes, high winter fuel bills, increased fuel poverty due to job losses and a possible future wave of COVID-19 hitting the NHS during winter – a period when it always struggles to maintain services.

Cold homes greatly increase the likelihood of damp or mould growth and are closely linked to respiratory illness. Damp and mould are associated with a 30-50% increase in respiratory problems.Children in cold homes are more than twice as likely to suffer from asthma or bronchitis than children in warm homes. Cold homes and unaffordable fuel bills also have a significant deleterious impact on mental health, which lockdown has inevitably exacerbated.

But there is also evidence that improving warmth in the homes can have a positive impact on health. A health impact assessment of the Nest energy efficiency scheme in Wales found that for those receiving help GP visits to people with respiratory conditions decreased by 4%, compared to a 10% increase for those not receiving help. The difference was even greater for those with asthma.

A Cochrane review of the impact of housing improvements on health found that ‘housing investment which improves thermal comfort in the home can lead to health improvements, especially where targeted at those with chronic respiratory disease’. Milner & Wilkinson’s review of the impact of energy efficiency and heating improvements found an association with improvements in respiratory and other chronic illness and reduced contact with health services.

While there is no specific evidence on whether warm homes can help tackle COVID-19, the evidence suggests warm homes:

  • enable immune systems to better fight off viruses
  • help improve the likelihood of people with viruses only suffering ‘mild’ symptoms; and
  • improve the recovery process for those returning from hospital after receiving treatment.

COVID-19 has focussed minds on the appalling impacts of virus epidemics on people’s health. But it should also remind us of the average 10,000 lives lost every winter through cold homes. The Government has had to commit vast sums of money to tackling a huge public health crisis. It’s green home grant scheme will improve the energy standards of a small proportion of England’s housing, although it isn’t providing any additional ongoing support for the most vulnerable. But when the dust settles, the Government will need to reassess its funding priorities. Surely, a programme to make sure our homes are warm, healthy and affordable to heat and power should be right up there?

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