The COVID-19 pandemic raises major challenges for tackling energy poverty writes William Baker, energy expert from the STEP project (Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty). The STEP project is now calling for immediate action to help low income consumers pay their energy bills and long-term action to improve Europe’s housing stock to ensure it is healthy and affordable to heat and power.

Home confinement and energy bills

While total energy consumption has declined due to shutting down large sections of the economy, domestic consumption has increased. Uswitch – a price comparison site – estimates that home confinement will cost the average UK energy consumer an extra £16 per month.

These costs are likely to be higher for people living in homes with poor energy standards. Even in normal circumstances, it costs £2,000 per year more to heat a home rated Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) G (the worst performing homes) to adequate standards than a home rated EPC C or above (the best performing homes).

The implications for people suffering from COVID-19, particularly those with existing respiratory conditions, are even more serious.

Cold homes and respiratory illness

Cold homes greatly increase the likelihood of damp or mould growth, which are associated with a 30-50% increase in respiratory problems. Children in cold homes are more than twice as likely to suffer from asthma or bronchitis than those in warm homes. Cold homes and unaffordable fuel bills also have a significant impact on mental health, which home confinement will inevitably exacerbate.

But there is also evidence that improving warmth in homes can have a positive impact on people with respiratory conditions (and on other health conditions, particularly mental health). A health impact assessment of the Nest energy efficiency scheme in Wales, for example, found that GP visits for respiratory conditions for those receiving help fell by 4%, compared to a 10% increase for those not receiving help. The difference was even greater for those with asthma.

Similarly, a Cochrane review of the impact of housing improvements on health found that ‘housing investment which improves thermal comfort in the home can lead to health improvements, especially where targeted at those with chronic respiratory disease’.

Supporting the energy poor

Affordable energy bills and warm homes play a vital role in maintaining people’s health. In the short term, governments and energy companies should provide immediate help with energy bills for those on low incomes and with existing health conditions or coming out of hospital.

The STEP project recommends countries suspend energy disconnection, provide credit to people with pre-payment meters and fuel vouchers for those on the lowest incomes. Countries should also re-assess arrears to ensure payment rates reflect people’s ability to pay, have procedures for debt write-off for those on very low incomes and offer energy rebates to the worst affected by COVID-19.

In the longer term, governments should carry out major home renovation programmes to ensure warm, healthy homes and affordable energy bills for all. The Irish Government’s Warm and Wellbeing scheme, which is targeted at people with respiratory conditions, is an example of good practice.

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The STEP project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 847080.