Households unable to pay their winter energy bills will be offered extra help from their supplier under new rules put forward by the regulator.
Energy suppliers will be required from mid-December to offer struggling customers “realistic” debt repayment plans or emergency credit if they are on prepay energy meters.
The rules are part of a plan by the energy regulator, Ofgem, to prevent households from being left in the dark or without heating as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on the economy.
The regulator is concerned that some customers may be unable to pay their energy bills, or struggle to top up their energy meters if they cannot afford the upfront cost or are isolating during the second wave of the Covid-19 virus.
Philippa Pickford, the regulator’s retail director, said the extra protections will offer hard-pressed households “some breathing space this winter”, and urged those who are struggling to pay their bills to contact their supplier as soon as possible.
The measures were originally part of a voluntary agreement between the regulator, the industry and the government set in March as the UK entered strict lockdown measures. But from 15 December they will be mandatory under the regulator’s licence conditions.
The extra help has emerged weeks after unions and charities warned that millions of people may struggle to afford their energy bills, which are expected to surge as people spend more time at home to work or shield themselves.
Even though Ofgem has lowered the cap on energy bill rates for the winter, households may find that their bills are more than £100 higher because they are using far more energy than usual while staying at home.
The number of people likely to lose their jobs owing to the financial impact of coronavirus is expected to top 1 million in 2020, according to some estimates, which would pile further financial pressure on households. It would take a particular toll on the estimated 3.5m homes already living in fuel poverty.
Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said Ofgem’s new protections “should help more people who are struggling to stay afloat”.
“Energy is an essential service and everyone should be confident they can adequately heat their home and protect their health – especially during a global pandemic,” she said.
“Even with this short-term support from suppliers, many people will still struggle to pay for the basics. Government needs to do more to support those who need it most, including making the temporary uplift to universal credit and working tax credit permanent,” Guy added.