By Eshe Nelson
The New York Times
GLOUCESTER, England>> The day after an arctic blast hit Britain, plunging temperatures below freezing and blanketing the country in frost, a 72-year-old man finally got through to the advice phone line of Warm and Well, a charitable service in Gloucestershire, in the west of England.
The man, whose name was not disclosed, said he had been calling for days and leaving voicemail messages with the nonprofit, which provides advice and emergency funds for people struggling to pay their energy bills.
Teresa Hewitt, the energy adviser who answered his call, could only commiserate. “We are absolutely overwhelmed at the moment,” she told him. She was one of seven staff members answering the phones that day in early December who were attempting to field 71 calls.
Across Britain this winter, more people are falling into debt and sitting in cold or damp homes as a result of rising energy bills, which have helped push the country’s inflation rate above 10%. This sharp increase in what is called “fuel poverty,” when 10% of household income is spent on energy bills, is stretching the resources of charities that provide free advice, emergency funds or resources to get access to heat and improve home energy efficiency. With limited staff and inflation-depleted resources, these groups have been hunting for more creative ways to reach vulnerable households.
Those efforts include having doctors in Gloucestershire prescribe heat to patients who are at risk of being hospitalized because of the cold. Some charities are handing out blankets, thermos flasks and thick socks.
“The numbers of people that are experiencing hardship now are kind of unimaginable compared to where they were even a year or so back,” said Peter Sumby, the director of communities at the nonprofit National Energy Action.
The group estimates that 6.7 million households are in fuel poverty. And in a survey published in December by the Office for National Statistics, nearly one-quarter of adults said they were struggling to keep their living rooms warm recently, while one-third said cutting back on their heating was harming their health or well-being.
Sumby said his nonprofit was resorting to “cobbled-together solutions to help people get through the winter,” including packs with blankets, packets of hot chocolate powder and draft-proofing items. “That is clearly a crisis response,” he said.
In the past six months, calls to the National Energy Action’s advice line have tripled from the previous six months. The line was shut down because of the “overwhelming” number of calls and a backlog of referrals. Since the beginning of September, Severn Wye, the nonprofit that runs Warm and Well and other services in the region, has helped more than 2,600 households, 1,000 more than the same time last year. Meanwhile, the phones never stop ringing. There have been nearly 9,000 phone calls since April.
The British government plans to spend 25 billion pounds ($30 billion) to cap energy rates this winter, but the typical household will still face gas and electric bills of 2,500 pounds, or about $3,000, a year on average, double what they were a year ago. In April, the annual cap will rise to 3,000 pounds.
In the Gloucester office of Warm and Well, Hewitt discovered there was little she could do for the 72-year-old man on the phone. He wanted help getting money to increase the insulation in his house. Poor building insulation is a chronic problem in Britain, and progress on insulation faltered more than a decade ago. The government recently set aside another 1 billion pounds for insulation, but this caller was ineligible for this and older grants.
But then, almost incidentally, the man revealed something troubling: He and his wife were sitting in their living room, which was 63 degrees Fahrenheit.
That’s several degrees colder than the recommended temperature for people their age who spend a lot of time at home. To keep up with their increasingly expensive energy bills, the man said, they had been keeping the heating low or off, wearing extra layers and piling the bed with blankets at night. Hewitt urged them to raise the thermostat and directed them to other help if they fell behind on the bills.
Across Europe, governments are spending heavily to shield their populations from rising energy costs and have spent months encouraging households to commit to energy-saving measures such as turning thermostats down a degree or taking shorter showers. Britain has put up a substantial amount of money, too, but only recently did it roll out a nationwide energy-saving advice campaign, which includes urging people to unplug appliances when they’re not in use and reduce the settings on boilers.
By the time this campaign began, fuel poverty charities were already inundated with cries for help.
Amid this immense pressure, there is a novel approach at work in Gloucestershire. This winter, some doctors will be able to prescribe heat to particularly vulnerable patients; the prescription means they will then get sizable help paying their energy bills.
The program is designed to help people facing acute trouble paying to heat their homes and ease the strain on the National Health Service, which has been pushed to the brink of collapse by a shortage of beds and a staffing crisis. It targets financially struggling people with severe respiratory conditions who are at risk of getting chest infections. After a small pilot program last winter, it will aim to reach 150 households this winter.
“Normally I’m rushing to people’s houses when they’re sick, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, do you need to go to hospital?’ ” said Dr. Hein Le Roux, one of the doctors taking part in the program. Being able to think holistically about health care and prevent people from getting sicker is “actually a luxury moment,” he said.
The energy crisis means not just that more people need help, but also that the available money doesn’t go as far. Severn Wye was able to give indebted and vulnerable households, such as those with children, older residents or people with disabilities, several hundreds of pounds each to help pay their energy bills. Since April, the nonprofit has handed out more than 360,000 pounds to 1,459 households across three counties. In Gloucestershire, the first pot of money was quickly depleted this autumn.
In early December, Suhaila Abdalla was eagerly waiting for the next round of funding to become available for Gloucestershire. She is one of nine energy advocates for Severn Wye who visits people in their homes. Abdalla, who speaks Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish, mostly visits refugees and asylum-seekers.
One subfreezing morning, Abdalla stepped into the warm home of Intisar Abdrhman, 27, who came from Sudan just under two years ago. The balloons and bunting were still up from her son’s first birthday a few days earlier. She had been waiting a few weeks for Abdalla’s visit after hearing her give energy advice at a local community center.
“I didn’t have any idea about anything” to do with energy efficiency, Abdrhman said in an interview, with Abdalla translating. “Everything was a surprise for me.”
“When I came here it was winter, it was very cold and I came from a very hot country,” she added. Every day, she said, she turned the radiators on fully, unaware of how much it was costing.
Recently, Abdrhman and her husband have been spending about 150 pounds a month on gas for heating and hot water, a huge amount for a compact one-bedroom apartment.
Over her two-hour visit, Abdalla was a whirlwind of efficiency. She got on the phone to Abdrhman’s electricity supplier on her behalf; tried to contact the gas supplier; and, while on hold, took Abdrhman around the apartment dispensing energy advice: Turn down the radiators, wash laundry at a lower temperature, unplug the appliances when not in use, switch to energy-saving light bulbs.
Abdalla couldn’t get through to the gas supplier. But before she left, she stuck silver reflective plastic sheets behind the radiators, which had been turned down, to reflect the heat back into the room, and handed over a “warm pack” containing blankets, thick socks and other items.
On the short walk across Gloucester’s city center to her second home visit, Abdalla got a phone call. It was another community center with an urgent request for her to give advice to a group. They desperately needed help, the caller said. But Abdalla’s schedule was already packed. They would have to wait.