Mouth-watering increases in energy prices have left millions worried about the cost of turning on heating as sub-zero temperatures hit Britain this winter.
Sky News presenter Jonathan Samuels is joined by a panel to answer questions from viewers. The experts are: GP Dr Helen Salisbury; personal finance expert Jasmine Birtles; and Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity which conducts and funds research aimed at ending poverty in Britain.
What is your advice for vulnerable people who are really concerned about the cost of heating their homes?
Dr Helen Salisbury: It’s a really, really tough time, but it’s important to remember that being in a cold house isn’t actually good for your health at all.
So we advise you to keep the room you are in around 18°C, particularly if you are over 65, particularly if you have mobility issues.
Ideally get up and move around every hour or so, because if you’re still, you’re more likely to be cold.
What are the best central heating settings to use to heat your home? Is it better to have a timer on and have big bursts at those times of day when you really need them, or is it better to maybe have it on a lower setting but keep it on all day?
Jasmine Birtles: This has come up a lot recently. I checked with the Energy Savings Trust and they said it’s best to have it here and there, as and when you need it, not always have it on.
I wear it for about an hour and once it warms up a bit I put on my sweaters, layers, sheepskin boots, sheepskin and wool are the best ways to stay warm.
Another thing I have is a heated blanket. That means, frankly, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the rest of the room: you’re warm.
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We know the government is helping and there have been a lot of headlines recently…but just remind us what help is out there?
Helen Barnard: There’s been help, there’s been the cost-of-living packages with one-time grants and so on.
There will be a significant increase in benefits when we get to next April, but there won’t be more help coming this winter.
We just did new research and found that three million low-income families can’t afford to heat their homes and actually 2.5 million can’t afford to eat right or heat their homes.
So all the things that health experts tell people to do — drink hot drinks, keep the room warm — people just can’t afford to do those things because the support is just inadequate to cope with the situation we’re in.
If I can’t afford to turn on the heat, are there places I can go, especially if there are power outages this winter?
Helen Barnard: There are a lot of people in the communities who have started doing “hot hubs” so it’s worth checking out your local community page. I’ve heard that there are some bakers, because they have their ovens going all the time, that they’re opening rooms.
But there’s actually a lot of financial support that some people might not get, so a lot of people aren’t claiming the benefits that they could, and that would really help.
It is worth going to a website like the Spin 2 us charity where you can do a benefit check and there is also a tool where you can find local grants.
The other thing is to talk to your energy supplier – they are legally obligated to help you find a solution if you are struggling to pay your bills.
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People get very scared and don’t want to ask for help. This is a time to absolutely ask for help, ask local charities, local authorities and your energy supplier.
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One thing people really worry about is being left out – can you reassure people it’s not going to happen?
Jasmine Birtles: Yeah, that’s not going to happen, particularly if you have a contract, direct debit.
Obviously if you’re on a pay-as-you-go meter, obviously if you’re paying for it, it won’t come up.
But if you’re on direct debit or if you’re supposed to have a contract and you can’t pay, they won’t cut you off. However, those debts will increase.
In fact, many of them have money to help. It tends to be one-off payments, but all the major energy suppliers have, frankly, a few hundred pounds to give under certain circumstances if you qualify, so go to your supplier first and, as Helen says, try Turn 2 Us.
Also, try your local council. Some local councils – not all – have some discretionary money which they use to help people who are suffering.
And if I can just add to what Helen has said about hot hubs, there is a website called warmwelcome.ukwhich has a really useful map of the UK, with all the various hot hubs I’m aware of, and I think more are being added.
Dr. Helen, what do your patients tell you? I’m sure you’ve seen people who have come to you in a real state, because it’s not just your physical well-being but it’s also your mental well-being?
Absolutely, and people are very concerned. And I think sometimes it’s the fear that’s so bad for their health. They’re thinking about taking care of themselves, they’re thinking about taking care of their families.
I would like to add that there has been a lot of talk here about going to websites, but many people may not have that ability, they may not be people who use sites on their cell phones, they may not have cell phones.
I think we also need to think about our neighbors, our friends, elderly people who we know might need an inspection, just to make sure they have turned on the heat and aren’t sitting there scared of bills and not turning the heat on.
Being in too cold an environment really increases the risk of strokes and heart attacks and it’s not worth it so we have to supervise people and unfortunately sometimes we may get much higher bills than expected but we have to keep warm.
People with underlying health conditions need to be careful in cold weather, don’t they?
Dr Helen Salisbury: Absolutely, and it’s partly about not being able to move, but you also have lung conditions like COPD, which makes them more vulnerable and you’re more likely to have inflections like flu and probably COVID too -19, so you’re less likely to be able to fight things off if you’re cold and breathing cold air.
The other thing that’s quite a concern is people who depend on electricity to help around the house for medical machinery, I think that’s a real concern for some people with the prices so high.
Is it better to have a smart meter? If you don’t, should you be taking regular meter readings?
Jasmine Birtles: There are two schools of thought with this one.
On the one hand, smart meters can be useful, particularly as a number of energy companies have apps that work with them. For example, there’s one called Ivy Bud, and you can find out how much you’re using, when you’re using it. You can also find out which household appliances are consuming more than others.
But I hear a number of people who are quite concerned about scrutiny – a lot of their information is known by who knows who.
If you’re not interested in having a smart meter, I think it’s a good idea to take a few meter readings, once a month, so you’re clear on how much you’re using and whether you’re unsure about your bills, or not. and the readings match, you can file a complaint with your supplier.
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What are the benefits of having a smart meter?
Jasmine Birtles: You can see what you’re using pretty fast, you can connect it to various apps and gizmos that will give you more control and knowledge of what you’re using in real time.
You can look at one of these apps or one of these gizmos and it’ll tell you that you’re using a lot of electricity and you’ll find that you left the iron on or something, so that’s helpful.
But above all it is useful to the energy company.
Energy companies tell me that smart meters allow them to see when people are using electricity and that means they can fix the grid better and have less waste. So I’d say it’s good for companies and the country as a whole, rather than for individuals.
What is being done for the homeless?
Helen Barnard: “Of course we have local authorities revamping their policies to try and get people in during these very cold nights. But we obviously have a problem in that we don’t have enough affordable housing, so what we often find is that people are brought here for a night or two and then finding a sustainable place to live is very difficult.
I think we have to be a little careful because some of the advice we’re giving for using apps can sound pretty hollow to people that are out there who just don’t have the money to turn on the lights, turn on the heat.
I think we have to come to terms with the fact that we have let our basic Social Security fail so painfully.