Blog: How lockdown is disrupting the usual coping strategies of the fuel poor

22 Jul 2020

Authors: Trustees of the Fuel Poverty Research Network

The impacts of COVID-19 for fuel poor households – those who struggle to afford to heat their homes to a comfortable temperature – have received very little coverage or consideration. But, because of the crisis, many more households are likely to fall into this category. Where the issues have been discussed, they have focussed on the amount we’re spending on energy during the lockdown. However, our research on the impact of the pandemic on fuel poor households suggests that lockdown has raised a range of (sometimes surprising) challenges for the fuel poor. Most significantly it has disrupted the, often ingenious, coping strategies employed by the fuel poor to stay comfortable and reduce their heating costs.

Increased energy bills

Recent research has revealed that households are spending an average of £32 extra a month on energy because of the lockdown. We know that the lowest income and most vulnerable households are concentrated in the least energy-efficient housing. This means vulnerable households are likely to experience a higher than average increase in energy bills, on top of increasingly strained household income. Given that meter readers haven’t been able to access properties throughout lockdown, it has also been estimated that many households could see direct debits jump by £25 a month from September, with vulnerable households most likely not to have submitted their own meter reads during lockdown.

The heatwave experienced in May 2020 will have reduced heating costs for many, but the recent cold period is likely to have wiped out any savings made. As our research points out, the temperature inside our homes doesn’t always keep pace with the weather outside. It can also be hard for many people who spend lots of time within the home during lockdown to feel warm and comfortable, even on a mild day.

Uncovering the impact of lockdown on fuel poor homes

We caught up with three former research participants. They all contributed to a previous study of how fuel poverty is experienced by low-income households in private rented accommodation. We asked them how lockdown was going for them,  how they were managing their energy costs, and whether they were managing to stay warm and comfortable. Here are their stories.

Mo’s story

Incandescent light bulb with in-camera colour effect. Looks poor and rundown, bedsitI last spoke to Mo in 2017. He’s still living in the same bedsit in Hackney- his home for 17 years. He’s now 53. Since I last spoke to him, his rent has increased from £150 per week to £180. Until recently his job in a small local shop paid around £100 per week. He ends up with about £50 a week left for all other expenses. He says he spends around £30 a week on electricity via a pre-payment meter, sometimes more in cold weather. His bedsit is heated by an electric oil filled radiator and he cooks using a microwave and a two-ring worktop hob. He has a radio for entertainment.

Since the Coronavirus outbreak, Mo has lost his job and says he has never been so unhappy. He worked for a few weeks after cases began to rise in London but has long term respiratory problems and mental health issues and became terrified of going to work:

“I had huge anxiety every time I had to go there and it got worse and worse. People were not always respectful and didn’t keep their distance. I was scared for my life. So I had to quit. I tried to get my boss to furlough me but we fell out about it.” 

When I first met him in 2017, Mo struggled to keep his bedsit at a comfortable temperature and would spend much of his time in bed when he wasn’t at work. The combination of the loss of his job and the lockdown has been bad news for Mo. It has taken away his usual coping strategies such as going to the library and cafes.

“The main things that I miss are being in work- it was always warm in there. I sat by a gas fire in the winter and that was bliss really. I miss being able to go to the library and read the paper in a warm place before maybe going to a café and nursing a tea for a bit. It was a social thing but also about saving electricity- a pound on a mug of tea was much cheaper than a couple of hours in the flat and nicer, too. I miss that and riding the buses. It’s been warm but when it hasn’t, I miss those places.”

The financial pressure caused by the loss of his job is also making unhealthy eating habits worse.

“I’ve mostly eaten from tins and packets for a long time but now I’ve stopped warming the food- it does help my electric go further and I’m still getting fed. But your belly doesn’t feel the same as it does after a hot meal.”

Eadie’s story

When I spoke to Eadie in 2017, she was desperately unhappy with where she lived and was struggling to adequately heat her home on a low income. She was scared to use her gas central heating as she feared it was unsafe and her landlord refused to get it looked at. Catching up with her in 2020, I hoped her situation might have improved. Unfortunately, things had only got worse for Eadie.

Radiator

Eadie was still suffering from anxiety and depression and her asthma remained severe. The lockdown has raised some interesting dilemmas for Eadie. She described how even in the recent warm weather, she had struggled to feel warm:

“It’s been very warm for the time of year and I’m grateful for that but the house doesn’t get warm even when it’s warm outside. It must take time for it to warm the bricks through.”

Her response to this has been to spend as much time outside as possible but this strategy brings its own challenges, as she explains:

“I used to visit my daughter and the kids as much as possible but that’s not an option. Not with my lungs as they are. It’s too risky….when the warm weather came, I put a chair out on the street. It was so lovely to feel the warmth on my bones. So lovely. But there were people up and down and I felt so tense and unsafe….I ended up in the park where there was more room but had to dodge joggers. I was warm but scared.  Now I walk as much as I can which has the benefit of making me sleep better so I don’t notice the cold at night so much.”

Sasha’s story

Sasha lives with her son, now five.  They live in what she describes as a “two up, two down” house in east Sheffield. Her son has had complex health issues since birth and so she took him out of school before the schools formerly closed, fearing for his health. At this point, she had to quit her casual cleaning job and increase her benefits claim in order to care for him. Like Edie, Sasha’s house doesn’t feel warm even in warm weather and the additional costs associated with having her son at home are placing a major strain on her:

“Now he’s not at school, I have to feed him all his meals here. He never stops eating and he does complain that the house is cold. So I have to keep his distracted or he asks for food all the time. He would prefer to sit and watch telly but if he does that then I need to put the heating on….we walk a lot but in quiet places because I don’t want him exposed. I get him to run fast when we get near the house so he’s warm when we get inside.”

As this quote outlines, Sasha is working hard to find strategies to cope with her son’s demand for food and warmth in the absence of school. Feeling cold and uncomfortable puts a strain on their relationship.  She described a further strategy which relied on making the most of passive solar heating in the house:

“The sun starts off on the back of the house and by mid-morning, his room is pretty warm on a sunny day, so we play in there until it moves around and then later we play in my bedroom, later in the day. We’re both so much more relaxed when we’re warm and the sun is shining and we argue less than.”

Vulnerable households left behind by lockdown

Lockdown is a challenging time for many. These householder accounts reveal the extent to which it is adding to existing stresses in homes and affecting health and wellbeing. The fuel poor live in the most poorly performing homes and these can be challenging to live in under normal circumstances. Spending more of their budget on energy than more affluent householders means that even small increases can have a profound effect.

A narrow focus risks obscuring the bigger picture. It is not solely about the home, and nor is it only about energy. By considering only the home we risk forgetting that the spaces of coping are varied and dispersed. With libraries and cafes closed, and public transport services limited, those opportunities to seek out warmth in a public space are lost, and those opportunities for warmth and companionship with family and friends are restricted. Even public areas and front yards become spaces of anxiety and coping strategies must be adapted or reinvented. With more time spent at home with the whole family, grocery costs must be added to the balance sheet as must the energy used for cooking. Eating food cold from the tin may save electricity but at a huge cost to wellbeing at an already difficult and isolated time. Being told that the average bill increase is (only) £16 is surely cold comfort.

Now is the time for action

The Academy of Medical Sciences stressed last week that “intense preparation” is needed over the summer to reduce the risk to health this winter. Mo, Eadie, and Sasha’s stories have shown the huge variety of impacts felt by vulnerable households because of lockdown. Time is running out to address these inequalities before it’s too late.

Preparations for any winter resurgence need to ensure the most vulnerable aren’t further disadvantaged. To achieve this, the government needs to act rapidly to work with vulnerable communities and fuel poverty experts across the country to co-produce practical interventions that work for everyone. Vulnerable households are likely to have the poorest quality housing, lowest opportunities to self-isolate, and least ability to heat their homes adequately. These issues need to be prioritised whilst it’s warm, to prevent a health and social care disaster this winter. Support the End Fuel Poverty coalition’s call to “End Fuel Poverty Before the Winter”. To learn more about the Fuel Poverty Research Network’s work, please visit http://www.fuelpovertyresearch.net/

 

About the authors

The interviews were undertaken by Dr. Aimee Ambrose, an Associate Professor of Energy Policy at Sheffield Hallam University and Dr. Graeme Sherriff (co-director of the Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford), with input from colleagues Dr. Robert Marchand (University of Sheffield, Energy Institute), Jenny Brierley (Researcher, University of Sheffield School of Architecture), Danielle Butler (Researcher, University of Salford), William Baker (Energy Advice development lead – Citizens Advice), Trivess Moore (Research Fellow.RMIT) and Marilyn Smith (Executive Director, EnAct)

The author team are all trustees of the Fuel Poverty Research Network (http://www.fuelpovertyresearch.net), an international network of 200 fuel poverty scholars and practitioners concerned with different aspects of the interaction between people, homes, and energy whose work has been recognised in the recent UK Government consultation on Fuel Poverty as continuing “to build and enhance the evidence base used to develop fuel poverty policy”.