The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats has raised concerns that pre-payment energy customers may be forced to leave their homes while self-isolating or infected with coronavirus or risk being cut off from their electricity and gas supply.
Sir Ed Davey, a former energy secretary, called on Ofgem to support pre-payment energy customers during the epidemic and quarantine.
Four million households in the UK have pre-payment energy meters, most of which need to be topped up at corner shops and newsagent. Households with pre-payment meters are disproportionately vulnerable and low income and more likely to suffer financial hardship from self-isolation or be at risk of serious health consequences if exposed to the virus.
“At a time when thousands of families face the very real prospect of self-isolation—not least individuals who live alone and may not have reliable family or friendship networks—we risk a situation where people who run out of credit are unable to heat their homes or are forced to go out whilst unwell, jeopardising the health of others,” Davey wrote said.
He encouraged Ofgem to act to make energy suppliers assist those at risk of being cut off due to lack of credit, especially those who can’t go to shops to top up their meters because they're ill or self-isolating.
He said suppliers should “provide alternative measures to enable people to pay for gas and electricity online or suspend payments altogether.”
Ofgem said it expects suppliers to “take proactive measures to support pre-payment meter customers, including customers in vulnerable circumstances.” This includes taking “a proportionate approach to debt recovery and late payments where appropriate.”
“It is critical that customers remain on supply,” a spokesperson for the regulator said.
Suppliers are considering a number of measures to support customers who are unable to top up their meters, Ofgem said. It reported that some suppliers are already posting pre-loaded cards to customers who are unable to top up outside of their homes.
Customers can also rely on family members and friends to top up their meters for them.
“Consumers who have self-isolated may want to arrange for a trusted person to help them and take their top-up card to the shop if required. It may also be helpful for consumers to leave the meter box unlocked if they need someone else to top up the meter,” the Ofgem spokesperson said.
The regulator urged customers who are struggling to top up their meters to contact their supplier.
Last week Ofgem launched a consultation about extending the price cap for pre-payment tariffs beyond its planned expiry date at the end of the year.
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