“Unprecedented numbers” of pensioners may die of cold in their homes this winter unless the government does more to help them pay their soaring energy bills, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak have been warned.
Age UK has written an urgent plea to both Tory leadership rivals, calling on them to commit to offering further emergency support to older people and those on low incomes and to restore the pensions triple lock – a guarantee that pensions grow in line with either earnings, inflation or 2.5% – if they enter Downing Street.
Underscoring their demand for action, the charity revealed that a huge survey that asked 14,000 over-65s about their priorities for Boris Johnson’s successor found that 57 per cent wanted to see the triple-lock restored and further help with soaring bills and inflation.
“The way the cost of living keeps rising is a nightmare for us all, but especially for people on low incomes, among them millions of pensioners,” said Age UK director, Caroline Abrahams.
“Substantial numbers are struggling financially already, but if the economic forecasts are accurate many more pensioners will be plunged into serious trouble come the autumn and winter, including some who until very recently believed their position to be totally secure.
“Older people and others in our society on low incomes will also need a big injection of extra financial support from the government to see them through the autumn and winter because inflation is so rapidly eroding the help they were given just a few months ago.
“If this doesn’t happen our sincere belief is that we could see unprecedented numbers of older people dying of cold in their own homes, something we would never say lightly and that is incredibly shocking in the 21st century.”
Beyond help with the cost of living and a pensions triple lock guarantee for next April, the charity’s survey found that one in four of those questioned most wanted to see action on the NHS and social care.
One respondent told the charity that current price rises were “almost like going back to January 1940 for some of us when rationing was introduced during World War II”.
Another said: “We definitely need the triple lock in place otherwise we will have to choose between food or heating. [We have] cut back on everything else so there’s nowhere else to go.”
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Energy bills for a typical household could hit £4,266 next year, consultancy Cornwall Insight has warned, while charity National Energy Action (NEA) has predicted that 8.2 million UK households could fall into fuel poverty in October when the price cap rises to an expected £3,600.
While the Labour Party has announced a plan to instead freeze the price cap at £1,971 for six months, at a cost of £29.3bn to the Treasury, Tory leadership favourite Ms Truss appeared to reject the opposition’s plan as a “sticking plaster” on Tuesday, saying her “priority is reducing taxes”.
Echoing Age UK’s warning, fuel poverty campaigners told The Independent on Tuesday that, without urgent action, “fuel poverty will leave a devastating legacy” this year.
“Even in an average winter, around 80 people sadly die each day during the winter months due to a cold home,” said NEA’s director of policy and advocacy, Peter Smith.
“This winter, prices will be higher than we’ve ever seen, and many more people will struggle to afford to keep themselves warm at home. Being cold makes people much more vulnerable to health conditions, heaping pressure on our health service.
“If the UK government does not provide more support, we know millions of households will be needlessly exposed to the impact of living in a cold home, and too many people will become sick and sadly pay the ultimate price.”
Some 8,500 people died due to living in cold homes during the winter months of 2020-2021, according to the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics. But research by NEA and the think-tank E3G has previously suggested the yearly average is closer to 9,700 deaths each winter.
“This year, fuel poverty will leave a devastating legacy, unless urgent action is taken to help people stay warm this winter,” said Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, an umbrella group comprising 60 charities, trade union, civil society groups.
“Yet, despite this looming public health emergency, the government and Conservative leadership contenders seem content to let it go untreated. Without action, the grim spectre of elderly people dying cold and alone in their homes will become a horrifying reality.”
In the letter sent by Age UK on Tuesday, the charity wrote: “Before the triple lock hopefully comes into play next April older people have to navigate an autumn and winter during which the cost of essentials like heating, using the phone and getting enough to eat are set to spiral, putting those on low incomes in an impossible position.
“We therefore call on you to make it clear now that you will take determined action to protect the older people, and others in our society, at greatest risk from inflation through this period.”
Additional reporting by PA