At least two million Britons are still heading out to corner shops and newsagents to top up their energy meters, potentially exposing themselves to the deadly coronavirus, an energy supplier has warned.
Utilita has estimated that nearly half of the UK’s 4.3 million pre-payment energy customers are topping up using keys and cards, despite the availability of smartphone apps and other measures implemented to help them.
Last week the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) reached a deal with energy suppliers about support for pre-payment customers, who are disproportionately likely to be vulnerable. Customers who are ill or self-isolating are advised to nominate a third party to top up their meters, top-up online or through an app, or request their supplier post them pre-loaded cards or keys.
Bill Bullen, chief executive and founder of Utilita, said: "This is the biggest threat for generations. People spread viruses, so we must all stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary to go out - this is about saving lives.
“My clear and direct message is that no-one should leave the house during the Covid-19 emergency to top-up their energy meters. If you have a smart meter, you can top-up from the comfort of your own home.”
Utilita specialises in pre-payment tariffs and pioneered smart pre-payment meters, rolling its first out a decade ago. Today 90% of the 600,000 households it supplies have smart meters, which can be topped up online, through a mobile app or with a text message. In comparison, nationally just 20% of households have smart meters.
However, the supplier is concerned its customers are still venturing out to shops.
Bullen said downloads of the My Utilita app, used to digitally top up gas and electricity meters, have spiked in recent weeks. The app was downloaded 58,000 times in the last month, a 107% increase on the previous month.
However, a “massive 45%” of customers are continuing to go to shops to top up.
"If this trend is replicated nationally across all suppliers, this is around two million households,” he said.
"All Pre-Pay energy customers with a smart meter, whether with Utilita or not, can top-up via phone, website or via a dedicated app if their energy provider has one. For elderly or vulnerable customers who may have difficulties, we'd urge trusted friends or neighbours to download the app to top-up for them."
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