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Eliminating fuel poverty is vital to tackling health inequality

This piece is part of a series of blog posts by members of the Inequalities in Health Alliance, highlighting the breadth of health inequalities that exist throughout society. #EverythingAffectsHealth 

Fuel poverty is a key driver of health inequalities, so tackling the rising cost of energy and improving the energy efficiency of UK homes must be central to the government’s upcoming Health Disparities white paper, writes Fay Holland, policy and research executive at Groundwork UK.

We all deserve to live in homes that support our health and wellbeing. The price of gas, the predominant mode of home heating in the UK, has risen dramatically in the past few months, driving up the cost of living for all households. With further price rises expected later in the year, the impact on the health and wellbeing of people who were already struggling with their energy costs could be devastating.

Groundwork’s Green Doctors are independent energy advisers who work with people experiencing, or at risk of, fuel poverty. They help people to reduce their bills by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes, negotiating with energy companies, and making sure they are accessing all the benefits they are entitled to. Traditionally, some of the biggest savings were achieved through switching tariffs or suppliers, but the steep rise in prices means that switching is no longer a cheaper option for most households.

Time and time again, we see the impact of fuel poverty on health and wellbeing, as well as the higher incidence of fuel poverty among people with long-term health conditions.

There are direct impacts, with many physical health problems exacerbated by living in cold or damp conditions. People living in cold homes are more at risk of complications from respiratory illnesses and, during the pandemic, we found that the areas being targeted by our Energising Communities programme because of their high rates of fuel poverty also, tragically, saw higher than average deaths from COVID-19 (Groundwork, 2021).

Fuel poverty also has significant effects on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Many of the people referred to our services are experiencing significant stress as a result of their situation. 31-year-old Camil, who found himself struggling with energy bills after the death of his partner during the pandemic, told us about the difference that regaining control of his energy costs and his finances had made to his health and wellbeing: I’m grateful because the support really took the pressure off and I feel more able to cope financially. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted and I can finally get some sleep.

Fuel poverty impacts on health in less obvious or direct ways. The rising costs of energy mean that many more people are having to choose between heating and eating, which can lead to poor nutrition. This is only likely to get worse: nearly half of people on low incomes predict that they will fall behind on their essential bills, or cut back on essential spending, when the energy price cap rises again in October (Citizens Advice, 2022).

Groundwork is calling for urgent action to protect customers from the rising cost of energy bills – the measures currently announced simply don’t go far enough. The government’s recent Energy Security Strategy had little to say on energy efficiency, which should be a priority ahead of the energy price cap rising again in the autumn. Insulating homes is something that we can do immediately to help people stay warm and well next winter. This needs to be accompanied by a robust long-term strategy to shift towards renewable forms of home heating both these measures will also help us to tackle climate change, another threat to health equality.