Many people in Britain are struggling to weather a cost-of-living crisis, with rising fuel bills putting further strain on household budgets
- Poorest households feel pain of rising energy bills
- From Greece to Britain, higher costs spark protests
- Governments try to cushion the impact with relief measures
By Sonia Elks
LONDON, Feb 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Whenever Sam's hand hovers over the heating control at his home in southern England, he faces a grim dilemma: turn it up and erode his meagre food budget, or turn it down and risk another spell in hospital.
The 28-year old, who has a liver condition that causes his body temperature to drop dangerously low, said he had been admitted to hospital four times so far this winter after trying to limit his heating bills due to soaring energy costs.
"I've ended up in hospital, having oxygen, having blood tests, having IV lines and blankets and things to keep me warm," said Sam, who asked not to give his full name.
"It's very stressful, because I'm trying to focus on my health," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
Countries across Europe have been facing a spike in energy costs as a perfect storm of factors have sent natural gas prices soaring to record highs in recent months.
Greek farmers staged a tractor convoy to demand more help with energy bills, while Turkey's opposition leader refused to pay his power bill in protest at price hikes, and Britain and France have both seen protests over the cost of living.
In Britain, regulated household energy prices will jump by 54% from April, pushing the average annual bill up to 1,971 pounds ($2,670) - while those on prepayment meters will typically see their bill top 2,000 pounds annually.
Many people in Britain are already struggling to weather a cost-of-living crisis, with rising energy bills piling on top of an increase in national insurance payments and higher food prices.
Sam, who does not work due to his condition, said he had cut back on grocery shopping and sometimes ate snacks instead of full meals so he could turn up the heating.
Bills may rise again at a second regular reassessment of the cap later this year, British energy regulator Ofgem has warned.
The impact of rising energy costs will be deep, industry experts and anti-poverty campaigners said.
"It's a crisis for anyone with a medium household income and below," said Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of industry body Energy UK in a recent briefing ahead of the Ofgem announcement.
The number of families in England living in "fuel stress" - defined as spending more than 10% of their budget on energy costs - is set to double to 5 million, according to an analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank.
Rising energy bills could result in thousands of extra deaths per year, said Ruth London, a founder of campaign group Fuel Poverty Action.
Many people are in "absolute desperation", she said.
"People are going without food, people are staying in bed because it's too cold anywhere but under the blankets, people are rationing their heat."
Even people who are not on the breadline are concerned about increasing money worries.
"We manage, I guess, but that's going to get harder," said Paul Blankley, from the southern English seaside town of Brighton, who works in medical administration and lives with his partner, a care worker.
They already wrap up in layers of jumpers and thermals in their chilly, poorly insulated home and sometimes go to bed early to stay warm, he said. They may also consider upping their hours on their part-time jobs to meet the extra fuel costs.
"I just feel that we're going to struggle more and more ... our quality of life has gone down," Blankley told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
DEMAND FOR SOLUTIONS
Anxious to cushion the impact of rising energy prices, European governments have been taking action - from banning disconnections to cash handouts to help protect poorer households.
Britain's government has announced it will provide all households with a 200-pound discount from October, to be repaid over five years, with the majority of households also getting an extra 150-pound rebate on council tax bills.
Those measures have been declared "woefully inadequate" by National Energy Action, a fuel poverty charity, which says more targeted help is needed to protect the poorest.
The opposition Labour party backed calls for a windfall tax on energy companies enjoying bumper returns - though energy bosses have argued such action would have little impact on prices and it shows no sign of being taken up by the government.
Some are making more radical demands.
Fuel Poverty Action has launched an "Energy for all" campaign arguing every household should get enough free heat to cover its basic needs and get rid of fuel poverty entirely.
Climate and energy experts have said the crisis underlines the need to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy as its generation costs fall, as well as insulating homes to make them more energy efficient.
As the poorest wait in hope for more help, Sam said he knew that as he settles in each night in his cold and drafty house, there are many others like him.
"There's going to be more hospital admissions with hypothermia - or worst-case scenario, death," he predicted.
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($1 = 0.7380 pounds)
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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