The Commissioner for Older People, National Energy Action, The Consumer Council and Advice NI have previously raised concerns around the challenges PAYG customers faced as a result of being unable to undertake the physical top-up of their meters. This was particularly the case for older and vulnerable customers who were advised to shield for several months earlier in the year. As a result, a centralised website created collaboratively by the natural gas industry was created to help people experiencing difficulties.

Speaking about the challenges faced by older people, Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch said:

“As we approach the final few weeks of what has been an extremely testing year for our older population, it’s imperative they know help is available. The development of this website by natural gas suppliers is a step in the right direction and will go some way to reassure vulnerable and older customers that help is out there.

“Network operators and gas suppliers across Northern Ireland have come together to launch this one stop support hub for natural gas customers. I welcome this unprecedented step and congratulate the industry for working together. However, more work is needed to help protect older people during the months ahead. It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the challenges faced by older people, and whilst winter fuel poverty is not new, it is vital that older people are supported during what will be one of the most difficult winters ahead.

“Since 2012, there have been 5,121 excess winter deaths and the most recent figures from 2017 to 2018, show that 1,500 people died with 30% directly attributed to living in a cold home. During this time people aged 65 and over accounted for 1,420 of these deaths and 520 of these were a result of respiratory diseases. This means that in 2017 to 2018, 500 older people died simply because their homes were not adequately heated. In a developed country, this is simply unacceptable.

“In order to support our older and vulnerable citizens during what will be an extremely difficult winter, I would like to see all energy companies actively reaching out to their older customers to ensure they are aware of sources of help. I would also like to see a plan by relevant Government departments to address this issue as a matter of urgency and look seriously at the introduction of the Warm Home Discount Scheme, applicable to energy customers in Great Britain. This is a one-off £140 payment applied to eligible customers’ electricity bills sometime between October and April.

“I would also urge the public to keep in touch with the older people in their families and communities who perhaps don’t have many people looking out for them and who may be unsure who to seek help from should they find themselves in this challenging position.”