Pandemics can grab the headlines or more worryingly they can fly below the radar. We are all too well aware of the terrible impact COVID has had on the vulnerable but we should not overlook the wholly avoidable toll that comes from the inability to stay warm due to fuel poverty.  

What many of us take for granted, others struggle with daily. The challenge of keeping warm, having to choose between putting on the heating and being able to put food on the table. According to the Environment International journal, fuel poverty affects up to 35% of European homes, and nearly 2.5 million households in England, yet there is still little general understanding of an issue that is only going to get worse with the dramatic increase in domestic energy costs coming into effect in April coupled with inflation and the terrible events in Ukraine. The papers are full of stories about the inflation of fuel prices but the primary focus of people’s attention is not on those that cannot afford to heat their homes at all. Marie Curie provides a definition of fuel poverty; a household is considered fuel poor if they have higher than average fuel costs that, once paid, leave it with an overall income below the official poverty line. The most common reasons for fuel poverty are low income, size of home, price of fuel and energy inefficient homes.

Anyone can experience fuel poverty, yet those most affected tend to be the most vulnerable; those that are unemployed, caring for others, chronically ill or have terminal illnesses, and the elderly. These people are ill-equipped to deal with the cold of the winter months and yet they suffer the most. Concerns as to how to heat their home add to their other anxieties. According to Marie Curie, it is estimated that over a quarter of households with a vulnerable or disabled person can spend more than £1,500 per year, even up to £2500 when the national average for energy bills per household is £1,214. Fuel poverty creates a brutal cycle of hardship that exacerbates their weakness and illness leading to flare-ups and infections, especially where vulnerable people are particularly susceptible to the cold. Arguably, the effect of the pandemic will have worsened the effects of fuel poverty as lockdown and unemployment lead to more time being spent in homes that needed to be heated and lit for longer. For those who have inadequate heating and energy, this increases the likelihood of being affected.

While vulnerable people are hit by the rise in fuel prices, the subsequent impact this has on the healthcare system generates a further issue as health conditions exacerbated by cold and poverty or the prioritisation of heat over food lead to an increase in hospital admissions, for example, due to complications surrounding asthma and cardiovascular disease. This represents a significant amount of additional responsibility and strain on hospitals. 

According to a 2014 report by Public Health England, approximately 10% of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to fuel poverty. We may choose to celebrate the hoped for end of the COVID pandemic but we should not lose sight of the terrible toll that fuel poverty takes on the poorest members of society every year.