Eye-watering energy price rises have left millions of people worried about the cost of turning on their heating as sub-zero temperatures hit Britain this winter.
Sky News presenter Jonathan Samuels is joined by a panel to answer viewers’ questions. The experts are: GP Dr Helen Salisbury; personal finance expert Jasmine Birtles; and Helen Barnard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity which conducts and funds research aimed at ending poverty in Britain.
What’s your advice to vulnerable people who are really concerned about the cost of heating their homes?
Dr Helen Salisbury: It’s a really, really difficult time, but it’s important to remember that being in a cold home is actually not good for your health at all.
So we recommend that you keep the room that you’re in at about 18C, particularly if you’re over 65, particularly if you have mobility problems.
Ideally get up and move around every hour-or-so, because if you’re sitting still, you’re more likely to get cold.
What are the best settings to use for central heating to heat your home? Is it better to have a timer on and have big bursts at those moments in the day when you really need it, or is it better to perhaps 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 better to do it here and there, as and when you need it, not have it on all the time.
I have it on for an hour-or-so and once it’s sort of warmed up a bit I’ve got my jumpers on, layers, sheepskin boots, sheepskin and wool are the best ways of staying warm.
Another thing that I have is a heated overblanket. That means that, frankly it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the rest of the room – you’re warm.
We know the government is helping, and there have been lots of headlines recently… but just remind us what help is available?
Helen Barnard: There has been help, there have been the cost-of-living packages with one-off grants and so on.
When we get to next April there will be a significant rise in benefits, but there isn’t more help coming this winter.
We’ve just done new research and we’ve found that three million low-income households can’t afford to heat their homes and actually 2.5 million can’t afford to eat properly or heat their homes.
So all the things the health experts are telling people to do – to have hot drinks, to keep the room warm – people simply can’t afford to do those things because the support is just inadequate to meet the situation we are in.
If I can’t afford to turn on the heating are there places I can go – especially if there are power cuts this winter?
Helen Barnard: There are quite a lot of people in communities who have started doing “warm hubs” so it’s worth looking on your local community page. I’ve heard there are some bakers actually, because they have got their ovens on all the time, who are opening up rooms.
But there is actually quite a lot of financial support some people may not be getting, so an awful lot of people don’t claim the benefits they could, and that would really help.
It’s worth going on to a website like the Turn 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 obliged to help you come to a solution if you’re struggling to pay the bills.
People get very scared and they don’t want to ask for help. This is a moment to absolutely ask for help, ask local charities, local authorities, and your energy supplier.
One thing people really worry about is being cut off – can you reassure people that won’t happen?
Jasmine Birtles: Yes, it won’t happen – particularly if you are on a contract, a direct debit.
Of course if you are on a pay-as-you-go meter then obviously if you are paying it, it’s not going to come out.
But if you are on direct debit, or if you are supposed to be on a contract and you can’t pay, they are not going to cut you off. However, those debts will mount.
Actually, a lot of them do have money to help. It tends to be one-off payments, but all the major energy suppliers they have, frankly, a few hundred pounds to give in certain circumstances if you qualify, so go first to your supplier and, as Helen says, try Turn 2 Us.
Also, try your local council. Some local councils – not all – have some discretionary money they use to help people who are suffering.
And if I can just add to what Helen said about the warm hubs, there is a website called warmwelcome.uk, which has a really helpful map of the UK, with all the various warm hubs that they are aware of, and I think more are being added.
Dr Helen, what are your patients telling you? I’m sure you have seen people who have come to you in a real state, because it is not just your physical wellbeing but it is your mental wellbeing as well?
Absolutely, and people are very worried. And I think sometimes it is the fear that is so harmful to their health. They are thinking about looking after themselves, they are thinking about looking after their families.
I would quite like to add that there has been lots of talk here about going on websites, but a lot of people might not have that capacity, they might not be people who use sites on their mobile phones, they might not have mobile phones.
I think we also need to think about our neighbours, our friends, elderly people we know might need checking up on, just to make sure they have turned their heating on and they are not sitting there scared of the bills and not turning on the heating.
Being in too cold of an environment really increases your risk of strokes and heart attacks and it is just not worth it, so we need to be checking up on people and unfortunately sometimes we may get bills much higher than wanted, but we do need to keep warm.
People with underlying health conditions need to be careful in cold weather, don’t they?
Dr Helen Salisbury: Absolutely, and partly that is about being unable to move about, but also you have lung diseases like COPD, that makes them more vulnerable and you are more likely to get inflections like flu and probably COVID-19 too, so you are less likely to be able to fight things off if you are cold and breathe in cold air.
The other thing that is quite worrying is people who are reliant on electricity for aids around the home for medical machinery, I think that is a real concern for some people with prices going 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.
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 is one called Ivy Bud and you can find out how much you are using, when you are using it. You can also find out which appliances are using more than others.
But I’m hearing quite a number of people who are rather concerned about control – a lot of their information being known by goodness knows who.
If you are not keen on having a smart meter, I think it is a good idea to take some meter readings, once a month, so you are clear how much you are using and if you are not sure about your bills, or you don’t think the bills and readings match, you can complain to your supplier.
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What are the benefits of having a smart meter?
Jasmine Birtles: You can see what you’re using quite quickly, you can connect it to various apps and gizmos that will give you more control and knowledge of what you are using in real time.
You can look at one of these apps or one of these gizmos and it will say you are using up a lot of electricity and you will find you have left the iron on or something like that, so that’s useful.
But primarily it is useful to the energy company.
Energy companies tell me that smart meters enable them to see when people are using electricity and that means they can sort out the grid better and have less wastage. So I would say it is useful to the companies and the country as a whole, rather than individuals.
What is being done for homeless people?
Helen Barnard: “Of course, we have got local authorities who are re-upping their policies to try and get people in during these very cold nights. But of course we have a problem in that we don’t have enough affordable homes, so what we often find is that people are brought in for a night or two and then finding themselves a sustainable place to live is very difficult.
I do think we need to be slightly careful because some of the advice we are giving to use apps can ring quite hollow for people who are out there who simply don’t have the money to turn the lights on, turn the heating on.
I think we need to get to grips with the fact that we have allowed our basic social security to fail so woefully.