Cost of living in UK puts vulnerable Britons at risk

CLACTON-ON-SEA, England – Bills are rising for Maureen Hart, a former librarian living on a fixed income after hip and back pain from a fall forced her into early retirement.

The gas and electric bill for his bungalow in Clacton-on-Sea, a seaside town east of London, more than tripled in April, as did utility bills across Britain when a government cap on energy payments eased. To save money and afford the help she needs to wash her hair and clean up, Ms Hart, 77, is cutting taxi rides to visit her son in several towns and keeping the heat off, even if it makes her pain worse.

“You really don’t think you’ll be one of those who can’t afford to heat up,” Ms Hart said. “There must be thousands of other people, like me, wondering: what went wrong?”

Inflation was already on the rise in Britain and elsewhere before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, triggered by rising natural gas prices and supply chain shortages after the pandemic shutdowns. The war brutally pushed the price of oil and gas even higher.

Today consumer prices in Britain are rising at their fastest pace in 30 years, and wages are failing to keep up, putting pressure on household incomes not seen since records began in 1956.

The rising cost of living is particularly appalling for the elderly and others with low or limited incomes, such as those living on government pensions and disability benefits, which have remained largely the same even when inflation has struck.

April was a particularly difficult month. Earlier in the month, the government raised its cap on energy prices, which track world gas prices, by 54%, a move that affects 22 million households. The cap, which resets twice a year, is expected to rise again in October, ahead of the freezing winter months.

The continuation of the war in Ukraine not only promises to keep energy bills high for the foreseeable future, but it also pushes up food prices, as Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of wheat, maize, barley and cooking oil. Headline inflation in Britain is expected to peak at 9% later this year. According to figures released by the government on Friday, more than 90% of adults said their cost of living rose over a two-week period in April, mainly due to food and energy bills.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the country last month to protest the soaring cost of living. Helplines for the elderly are reporting an increasing number of calls asking for help with energy bills in recent weeks.

And many people who had already cut their household budgets are going through them again, foregoing meals and, in the most extreme cases, being disconnected from electricity and gas for periods, some advocacy organizations say.

Even before the latest escalations, households were feeling the pressure, with more than three million people in England alone facing ‘fuel poverty’ or struggling to afford to heat their homes, in 2020, according to figures from the government.

In April, almost half of adults paying energy bills said they had struggled to pay those costs, and one in five had been unable to buy fuel at some point, according to the UK Office for Statistics national. Almost a quarter of adults in Britain said it was very difficult to pay their household bills in March compared with a year earlier.

Opposition lawmakers on Wednesday pressed the government on its plan to tackle high inflation and the economic downturn in the country, accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of ignoring the problem. Mr Johnson pointed to a range of measures to help offset the energy cap increase, including some tax refunds and a drop in the unemployment rate.

Britain has seen soaring energy prices before, but the current situation is “once in a generation”, said Jack Leslie, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank focused on improving the standard of living of low-income people. He added that there was no indication that energy prices would come down any time soon. “It’s on another level,” he said.

Ms Hart, who rents out her book-filled bungalow, moved to Clacton-on-Sea for the sun and the outdoors, she said. With her difficulty walking long distances these days, her social life involves going to the seaside and being visited by an aide who comes several times a week to help her wash her hair for about £75 per month. And with news that her rent has also risen by £20 a month, she is even considering losing the aid.

“All my family and friends are saying the same thing – what are we supposed to reduce?” she says.

She is looking to see if she can take advantage of some measures the government instituted last month to help people facing rising costs, including a £500million grant that local authorities are to distribute to low-income households .

But critics and campaigners said the measures did not match the severity of the price hike, repeating a long-standing plea for benefits to be increased.

“It used to be expected that older people could tighten their belts,” said David Southgate, policy and research manager at Age UK, an older people’s support group. “The difficulty now is that there are no more cuts older people can make to their household budgets.”

People living on disability benefits because they cannot work also face additional hardship in the face of rising prices.

In Liverpool, Maxine Williams, 52, said keeping warm was a key part of managing a disorder affecting her connective tissues, known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. But since her energy bill doubled in April, Ms Williams has started to cut her weekly shopping list down to the essentials, microwave meals instead of using the oven and cancel services of TV streaming. What has remained essentially the same this year is her disability award, she said.

“I can’t just turn on the heating, because I can’t afford it,” she said, adding that it left her more nauseous and sore. “It’s been hard.”

To help each other out of fear of a cost-of-living crisis, many older people – ranging from anxious to resigned – are banding together.

On a recent sunny afternoon, dozens of people gathered for lunch in Jaywick, near Clacton-on-Sea, where residents paid £1.50 (about $2) as volunteers served tea, coffee and a two course meal. Some people declined to discuss their finances, citing the event as an escape from a source of stress.

It was the social highlight of the week for Patricia Hutton, 89, a resident of Jaywick, who said events like this had brought her through times of crisis. Like everyone else, his bills went up, but with his arthritis and some mobility issues, it was hard to keep the heat and the lights off.

“I pay all my bills by direct debit, and if there’s no more money for food, there’s no more money for food,” she said.

Her friend Jennifer Belcher, 67, started going out early in the morning and buying discounted food as it was due to expire soon in order to help Ms Hutton reduce her grocery spending. “We’ve saved him almost £40 a month on his purchases,” she said.

Ms Belcher’s own energy bill more than doubled in the past month, she said. Now holidays are a thing of the past, as is shopping for new shoes and clothes. “Is our retirement in line with that? Is that the devil!” she said.

In a country where excess winter deaths number in the tens of thousands, warmer weather has blunted some of the strength. But for many Britons wary of the tough choices the colder months will bring, summer will be hard to enjoy.

“Next winter, what are we going to do? said Mrs. Belcher. “Make a fire in the garden?

Eshe Nelson contributed report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.