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calendar22 May 2020

Author: Paul Walmsley

The unseen in crisis

The unseen in crisis

What is an emergency?

The UK is facing an invisible threat. Coronavirus (COVID-19) became a Public Health Emergency of International Concern at the end of January this year and since then it’s been called a crisis by the media on an almost daily basis. 

But it’s not just a public health emergency. COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on many household finances. Income streams are drying up, bills are going unpaid and anxiety is rife. The Government and industry are working tirelessly to roll out support packages for households in need. Yet, many don’t know what help is available and others are struggling to access it. Customers across the board are being told they should, ‘Only call in an emergency.’ But what does that mean? Am I going through an emergency right now?


Increased household costs

The regulator for energy, Ofgem, says that since the lockdown began more than half of energy customers (56%) have reported using more energy than normal, a figure that rises to three-quarters (75%) for those with children. With the nation isolating at home and schools closed, families are having to spend more on energy than ever before. The problem is made worse for those families who were already facing debt and financial uncertainty, throwing them into further chaos; families like CAP client Sue’s.

(The cost of) food has increased. The heating did start to increase, but because of the beautiful weather it’s been off quite a lot. My electric is a Direct Debit each month but I’m expecting that to go up. Maybe double?  My son is on his laptop/Xbox all day. We’re on the tablets and the computer and the TV is going all day. There’s more washing. And my water bill will probably increase.’ - Sue, former CAP Debt Help client (Names have been changed)


What do the numbers say?

Before the pandemic, we conducted some research into our clients’ experiences of the energy sector, and this was published in our report, A dark place. We found that 87% of CAP clients do not feel confident asking their supplier for help. 

The statistics and responses from our clients show that even before lockdown they were already isolating themselves for very different reasons; shame, fear and guilt were the causes, rather than coronavirus. In fact, one in four (24%) CAP clients did not leave their house for a week or more. And this was before the phrases ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ were in our daily vocabulary.

Suddenly, a vast number of people are unable to work and are now facing financial uncertainty. But for those already struggling, how much has changed? Are the people who were previously cut off from society going to be lost in the enormous crowd of those isolating for new reasons? Those feelings of fear and shame created by debt will still be there. The way companies interact with their customers once the lockdown ends needs to be effective, or they risk pushing households into further isolation.

Ofgem recently published data looking at energy customers’ responses to the current situation. It showed that just 8% of those who had difficulty topping up their prepayment meter have contacted their supplier for help. In fact, more people (17%) were asking friends and family for help, rather than their energy provider. This number is particularly worrying when you realise it comes from a group of customers engaged enough to respond to an Ofgem survey.

Looking at these new figures with those from before the pandemic, it is distressing to think about how many more households will be struggling to afford energy, but are afraid to ask for help. Families will be sitting at home during this time, unable to afford food and heating, afraid to speak out due to fear and anxiety. Even through this current crisis, they are unable to make themselves heard.


Lost, but not forgotten

The good news is that help does exist. Suppliers are doing their best to provide help and assistance through emergency top-ups and significant lenience for their customers. However, far too many people lack confidence in both themselves and their supplier, meaning even in their darkest moments they don’t seek the help they need. We often refer to debt as a burden; one that weighs people down and buries them. With a virus-driven lockdown, we need to find ways to lift this burden from them, before they get lost in the crisis.

Like a virus, debt is often invisible. But people don’t need to suffer in isolation. We all need to make sure nobody is lost in the rush to deal with the crisis. At the beginning of the outbreak, many people reached out to their neighbours to offer a helping hand. Two months on, isolation, financial struggle and anxiety are still on the rise across the nation. If you know someone who is facing a tough situation, why not offer a helping hand again? You never know what could be going on behind closed doors. 

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