Protecting vulnerable energy customers during COVID-19 outbreak

Blog by Peter Smith, NEA’s Director of Policy and Research

Even before the recent COVID-19 virus outbreak, we knew that cold, damp and unhealthy homes cause unnecessary physical and mental harm and place a huge strain and additional costs on health services. Given the outbreak, it’s now even more crucial to help people keep warm and safe in their homes and create a living environment which gives people the best possible chance of recovery.

Across GB there are over four million households who use pre-payment meters (either gas or electricity) and in recent weeks NEA and other consumer groups have been increasingly worried about customers who are ill or self-isolating due the virus who aren’t able, or can’t afford, to top up these meters. In particular, the impossible choices some customers face if they have to compromise Government advise to travel to locations to buy top-up cards or access credit, despite being ill. Today the UK Government announced joint steps with the energy industry to support vulnerable energy customers. Measures include ensuring pre-payment customers can access credit if they are self-isolating and steps to ensure energy debt is minimised. All UK domestic suppliers have also signed a voluntary set of consumer protections which will come into force immediately. NEA has warmly welcomed these collaborative steps.

As well as welcoming the nature of this direct assistance, we also hope in general this gives vulnerable customers the confidence they need to contact their supplier to see what wider support could be provided. There will however be inevitable challenges getting through to suppliers and them providing a consistent level of support to all customers who may need it, with millions of people across the UK now needing to use much more energy at home. In the short term, we are calling on suppliers to do what they can to prioritise the most vulnerable customers when answering calls, providing discretionary top-ups or debt relief.

There are also further additional steps energy companies, Government and Ofgem can take to keep people warm and give them the best chance of getting well. One key priority is to try to maintain momentum with the smart meter rollout. The challenges conventional pre-payment customers currently face could be addressed if they can access automatic ways of topping up which smart prepay facilitate. It is therefore welcome that alongside today’s announcement, BEIS and Ofgem have issued new guidance to energy suppliers regarding the smart rollout, setting out their expectation on risk management and delivering a good quality service during the outbreak. This confirms the rollout will continue, despite the challenges, albeit with some changes to the requirements for engineers to provide an in-house demonstration/energy saving advice to minimise risks to both installers and customers by limiting social contact. NEA is also hoping suppliers will consider offering indebted customers more support such as payment holidays and payment matching schemes which are already common in other sectors. Energy companies, Government and Ofgem could also provide similar energy rebates to those which are used via Warm Home Discount or take steps to reduce or freeze standing charges to ensure low-income consumers that may only top up their pre-payment meters rarely, don’t lose credit before they can access any energy.

Further steps such as these could be crucial in the weeks and months ahead. We will be continuing our collaborative work with all these parties to explore these areas but today is a good step forward and we welcome today’s necessary focus on protecting the most vulnerable energy customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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