Concerns are mounting that the icy conditions will have a devastating effect on those suffering from fuel poverty, especially the elderly, following yesterday's revelation that the Warm Front fund, which helps people with heating and insulation, would not take on any more cases until next April.With many of the big energy providers having already hiked up their prices, the immediate future looks bleak, with forecasters predicting that December temperatures will be as vicious as November, Europe's coldest on record.
As Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne announced this year's budget for Warm Front was fully allocated, a spokeswoman for Age UK said it was "disastrous" for those who would normally have turned to the scheme for help.
In a statement backed by the watchdog Consumer Focus, Age UK's charity director Michelle Mitchell said: "Warm Front is certainly not without its problems, but it has provided much-needed help for millions of older people during the past decade. With an estimated 3.5 million older people living in fuel poverty, it is a huge concern that many frail and vulnerable older people, who desperately need help to upgrade their heating systems or improve their insulation, will now be left to their own devices."
Office for National Statistics figures show that 28,160 deaths were related to the cold weather over four months last winter, and charities – which point out that the UK has the highest winter death rate in northern Europe – fear the figure will rise this year. Earlier this month, two pensioners in Cumbria – Lillian Jenkinson, 80, and William Wilson, 84 – were believed to have frozen to death at home.
The Coalition Government has kept Winter Fuel Allowance payments of £250 for pensioners (£400 for those over 79) as well as Cold Weather Payments of £25 per week for the most vulnerable when temperatures fall below freezing for a week.
Meanwhile, Energy Minister Charles Hendry has warned MPs of a shortage of domestic heating oil that could lead to rationing. "If there is further snow over Christmas, this situation could become very serious indeed," he said. The price of heating oil has risen dramatically in the past month, and Mr Hendry said that the Office of Fair Trading would be looking out for cases of price fixing.