Energy advice at a social distance: the impact of Covid on third sector energy support organisations
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a large amount of research has focused on the impact of the crisis on low-income, vulnerable, and otherwise disadvantaged households, writes Matthew Scott. The likes of the Resolution Foundation, Child Poverty Action Group, ourselves at National Energy Action, and numerous others have tried to understand the uneven and variegated consequences of the pandemic – and the government’s response to it – on different disadvantaged groups.
But what about the organisations that provide support to these households; the charities, volunteers, housing providers, home improvement agencies, and community groups scattered across the UK that are often the bridge between struggling households and the government support they need? National Energy Action works with a wide range of charities that support low-income and vulnerable households with their energy, whether it be assistance switching tariff or supplier, help applying for government rebates like the Warm Home Discount, or advice on utility debt, billing, or other similar issues. For thousands if not more, these organisations are crucial lifelines for households that might otherwise go through whole winters without heating or spend years without being aware of the welfare support they are entitled to. The impact of their work is frequently lifechanging, as we hear about in our research time and time again.
However, providing this support at a social distance, in the midst of a pandemic, has been and continues to be challenging. As part of our research into the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable energy consumers – published last year in our annual Fuel Poverty Monitor – we gathered the views and experiences of the organisations we work with on how their services had been impacted by the crisis. This blog will focus on two of the most significant and related challenges we’ve learned about in our work over the last year.
Service demand and referral networks
First of all was the impact of the pandemic on referral numbers and service demand, and this was by no means even or consistent. Many of the charities and organisations we work with are part of flexible, informal referral networks which are often tightly focused around specific geographical areas, and whether service demand had gone up, down, or stayed the same, our research participants agreed that the impact of the crisis on their provision was acutely shaped by the impact it had on their referral partners.
Where referral partners stayed open, demand remained high, but others witnessed the demand for their services decline sharply as referral partners closed, furloughed their staff, or redirected their resources to other areas of need. One home improvement agency in Wales, for instance, told us how a large proportion of their referrals were generated via social services by occupational therapists, but as these therapists were unable to conduct home visits, these referrals ceased overnight at the beginning of the pandemic.
In other words, the impacts of the crisis on one charity could – and did – have broader ripple effects, in some cases bringing entire partnerships and referral networks shuddering to a halt. In other cases, however, referral networks that remained relatively unaffected were quickly overwhelmed by the number of people needing support with fuel vouchers, debt support, and other emergencies. Looked at in the round, the crisis can therefore be seen as an event that both disrupted and intensified the more or less continual circulation of referrals between charities, local authorities, and other support agencies working in the energy space.
Home visits and working practices
Secondly and relatedly, the pandemic impacted and disrupted the working practices of providing energy-related support and advice. Specifically, this revolved around the suspension of home visits by energy advice caseworkers and the subsequent transfer of the ‘location’ of support from face-to-face to telephone. This had two knock-on impacts.
The first was it made it much more difficult for caseworkers to access the necessary paperwork (bills, identity documents, gas/electricity meters, etc.) for grant applications, income maximisation checks, or the authority to represent a client in a conversation with an energy supplier. Unable to acquire these through home visits, caseworkers found often ingenious workarounds, but we were still told several stories, for example, of how digitally excluded households struggled to provide accurate photographs of gas meters or faced difficulties in emailing or texting images of bills to their caseworker. The net impact of this was delay, typically at a time when rapid help was needed as a matter of urgency.
The second knock-on impact related to what one organisation called the ‘visual assessment of need’. Spending time with people, in their own homes, was considered by many as central to understanding their situation and assessing how pressing their need for support was. Sometimes, this led to the identification of issues that the household was not actually aware of (e.g. a 'dumb' smar, a health hazard, or a faulty gas appliance), and therefore couldn’t communicate over the phone or by WhatsApp message.
Perhaps even more crucially, though, was that organisations told us of the constant labour of building rapport and relationships of trust with vulnerable households over the phone. As one housing provider told us: “Face-to-face visits are essential to vulnerable customers. Customers can be very hard to get hold of, but you can build up trust in a face-to-face visit.” Summed up, the kinds of intimacy, trust, and immersion into the lives of vulnerable households that can be achieved with home visits were made far more difficult when these visits were no longer permitted.
Winter is coming
Despite more recent and rapid shifts away from life as it was for much of 2020, these experiences from the height of the pandemic matter. They matter because, with inflation on the rise, furlough and the Universal Credit uplift both set to go, and a recently announced hike to the energy price cap, the winter of 2021/22 is – yet again – set to be perilously difficult for the millions of households living in fuel poverty across the UK. Ofgem and the UK government can, and must, introduce deeper protections for these households. Without such protections, many will find themselves turning once more to these vital organisations – both in the energy space and beyond – that strive to construct a thin sinew between their lives and the welfare they need and are entitled to. Unfortunately, these organisations are yet again set to experience a high demand for their services, and many will continue to provide the vital help that they do in a socially distanced manner awash with challenges and disruptions.
It is in this context that we have to continue to support them in whatever way we can – donate, volunteer, spread the word, get involved. And most of all, take care of the people around you, and try to get a picture of the organisations in your area that do this kind of work. Pointing someone you know in their direction could, very feasibly, turn a harrowingly cold horizon into a warmer, healthier winter at home for them.
Dr Matthew Scott is a researcher at National Energy Action, the national fuel poverty charity working across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. You can contact him on Twitter @CaroKanny or at firstname.lastname@example.org.