Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, it’s fair to say that energy poverty was not at the top of the agenda in Slovakia writes Petra Cakovska of the Slovakian consumer organisation, Spoločnosť ochrany spotrebiteľov (S.O.S.) Poprad.
We conducted a questionnaire on the topic in Slovakia and the reactions were very mixed. A lot of people denied the very existence of energy poverty. This is worrying as, according to the Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic, energy poverty is an issue affecting one in six Slovaks. What’s more, Slovaks spend the largest proportion of their wages on energy bills of all EU countries.
Our questionnaire was followed by the publishing of the long-awaited Slovakian energy regulator’s report, which after having been ‘ping-ponged’ between ministries for years, finally created a definition of energy poverty.
Fast forward to February 2020 and parliamentary elections meant a new government, more or less exactly as the pandemic started to rage in Slovakia and across Europe.
The new government represented fresh political leadership for the country, with a progressive economy minister. It was an opportunity to raise awareness with the new government about the problems of energy consumers caused by COVID-19, especially of vulnerable groups, whose ranks are unfortunately growing due to the crisis. This includes families, where a parent lost work because of COVID-19, single-parent-families as well as senior citizens (especially those in rural areas in very energy-inefficient houses).
Almost at the same time, we sent the ministry a letter with suggestions for measures to help vulnerable energy consumers. They subsequently announced a moratorium for disconnections and a ‘no-sanction’ policy for the late payment of energy bills for two months. The legislation, which would have created these new rules was set to be introduced imminently.
But the weeks passed and there was still no legislation. Then, at the end of April, we discovered that the Slovak Government would introduce neither the disconnection moratorium nor the no-sanction-policy for bills.
However, we expect that energy suppliers will show solidarity and deal with each case sensitively and should be helpful and flexible when consumers ask for an individual payment calendar agreement. We are monitoring the market and action will be taken immediately if needed.
By the end of April, a press release from the ministry of economy made a brief reference to energy poverty. We would like to believe that this is an achievement. The press release stated that post-COVID-19, as part of the government’s new programme, more attention will be paid to ensure lower energy prices for consumers together with targeted measures to reduce energy poverty.
By May, the pandemic has fortunately so far had a relatively mild impact in Slovakia and the government is ramping down its emergency measures. Shops, hotels and churches are open again for the public. There are still people who deny that energy poverty exists in Slovakia, but now we have new clear data to create fresh momentum for the STEP project to deal with the issue in the future.