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10 November 2020

A cold winter: How Covid-19 unemployment has hit England’s fuel poor areas

Campaigners warn lost income and lockdown restrictions could increase households’ risk of catching Covid-19 from cold and overcrowding. 

By Chaminda Jayanetti

Hundreds of thousands of workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic live in fuel poverty hotspots, as campaigners warn lost income and lockdown constraints could increase their risk of catching Covid-19 from cold and overcrowded housing.

Analysis of government figures by the New Statesman shows that of the 50 English local authorities with the highest levels of fuel poverty, 21 have high unemployment, defined here as areas where at least one in ten people aged 16-70 is claiming Universal Credit (UC) while out of work.

Around 940,000 people were out of work and claiming UC in these 21 local authorities as of August – a rise of 400,000 since February. Claimant numbers more than doubled in some areas with high fuel poverty, particularly London boroughs such as Ealing and Brent. (Some residents will have transferred on to UC from other benefits due to UC’s increased generosity.)

In four of the five areas with the highest estimated fuel poverty rates – Newham, Liverpool, Manchester and Blackpool – 15 per cent of households are estimated to be “fuel poor”.

By contrast, none of the 50 local authorities with the lowest fuel poverty has high unemployment, and just two of the bottom 100 do.

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There are 326 local authorities in total, of which 45 have high unemployment.

Unemployed households are more likely to struggle to meet fuel bills, a problem made more severe by a new lockdown that forces families to spend more time at home, driving up their fuel usage.

“Cold homes can cause or worsen a range of serious health conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, bronchitis and asthma,” says Adam Scorer, the chief executive of advocacy group National Energy Action (NEA). “In any normal year, this results in around 10,000 premature deaths and costs the NHS around £1.3bn in England alone.

“This year, the situation is even more desperate. Lockdown and increasing unemployment will create a situation where more people are forced to spend time in homes they can’t afford to heat. Many people will use more, pay more and owe more, while earning considerably less.”

In 2011, a report by the Institute of Health Equity found the effects of cold homes contributed to 21.5 per cent of excess winter deaths.

The fuel poverty figures expose an even starker picture when looking closely at 32,844 neighbourhood-sized areas, the lower layer super output areas (LSOAs), which are the smallest geographical unit used in government data.

Of 100 of these neighbourhoods with the highest fuel poverty levels – including parts of Birmingham where nearly half of all households are estimated to be fuel poor – 69 are in local authorities with high unemployment. By contrast, of the 100 LSOAs with the lowest fuel poverty levels, just three are in council areas with high unemployment.

A household is judged to be in fuel poverty if it has above-average costs for the fuel required to have a warm, well-lit home, with hot water and appliances, and if these costs leave the household in relative poverty.

In reality, many of these households cut back on heating bills by suffering cold temperatures or crowding into a single heated room – both of which increase the risk of spreading Covid-19. Studies suggest colder weather is thought to increase the virus’s severity and spread.

“The same health conditions impacted by cold indoor temperatures place people at greater risk of Covid-19,” says Scorer. “And many coping strategies which people normally employ to get through the winter months, such as only having one heated room for the family to socialise in, could also increase the spread of infection.

“This not only threatens more lives, but hampers collective efforts to reduce infection and prevent the NHS from being breached. There are so many people who rely on libraries, cafés, pubs and neighbours as warm and safe havens during the winter. These may be denied to them during lockdown.”

A report by NEA published earlier this year found fuel poor households were responding to lockdown by increasing energy use, due to spending more time at home, reduced work income, increased debt and subsequent energy rationing. It also found difficulties accessing support among those for whom English is not their first language.

Government data also shows areas that were in tier three lockdown conditions were disproportionately those with high estimated fuel poverty rates. Of the 50 local authorities with the highest fuel poverty, 15 were in tier three at the start of the new England-wide lockdown, compared with none of the 50 local authorities with the lowest fuel poverty.

Areas in tier three generally had the highest Covid-19 infection rates. If these don’t fall sharply during November, their lockdown periods could last beyond 2 December.

NEA is calling for the government to bring forward its “Breathing Space” reforms, which will introduce a 60-day halt to enforcement action and an interest freeze for people with problem debt from next May.

The government and energy industry have already taken some steps to reduce the burden on financially constrained households, though critics warn that few know about the support available, such as the Warm Home Discount, a one-off electricity bill discount of £140 for those on low incomes.

In addition, emergency measures adopted at the start of the pandemic created ways for residents to maintain their electricity supply when they cannot afford to top up prepayment meters.

A spokesperson for Energy UK, the trade association for the energy industry, said: “At the outset of the pandemic, energy suppliers acted quickly to introduce additional support for customers financially impacted by coronavirus, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, and suppliers will continue to help their customers during this challenging time.

“There will need to be a continued role for government in supporting households adversely impacted by Covid-19 and who may be struggling to pay for essential services like their energy bills.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “No one should be cold in their own home, which is why the government has already brought in extra funding and further measures to look after the most vulnerable.

 “We are protecting households from rip-off deals with our Energy Price Cap, giving extra money to pensioners during colder times of year through the Warm Homes Discount and providing £2bn in funding for domestic energy efficiency measures through the Green Homes Grant scheme.”