ONS: An even bleaker midwinter as we wrestle with bills

A quarter of us (23%) are either occasionally, hardly ever or never able to keep warm in the living room at home. This rises to 32% of those aged 16-29. 63% of us are using less gas and electricity because of rising costs – with 96% of this group using the heating less.

Half of us find it difficult to pay energy bills (48%). One in 6 (16%) are worried their food will run out before they have the cash to buy more, and 6% have already run out. One in five (19%) are eating smaller portions and 17% are eating food past its use by date.

The ONS has published details of how the winter is affecting us (including the NHS) The impact of winter pressures on adults in Great Britain – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

Sarah Coles, senior personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown said: “Millions of people face a positively Dickensian Christmas, forced to brave horrible cold and hunger in their own homes, and deal with growing concerns over how they can afford to feed their family.

“The Energy Price Guarantee may have kept a lid on energy bills, but it has capped it at an eye-watering £2,500 a year for an average user. At this level, millions of people can’t afford to stay warm at home. More than half of us (57%) are worried about it, and a quarter are sitting at home feeling the cold seep into their bones.

“We’re already doing what we can to stay warm without breaking the bank, with 82% putting on more clothes or blankets, 46% only heating the rooms they use, 31% using hot water bottles and 27% going to bed earlier. Taking steps to increase energy efficiency and cut waste is incredibly sensible at any time, but there’s only so much it can achieve.

“More people have been forced simply to turn the heat off and cope with the consequences – and those consequences can be severe – especially for those who are already frail or in poor health. A third (34%) said a cold home was bad for their health or wellbeing, and anyone who is already struggling with mobility, lung problems or circulatory issues could face real risks.

“Soaring food costs have also hit hard. The food foundation found that almost one in five face food insecurity (18.4%). This is up from 13.8% in April this year. It’s hardly surprising, given some of the impossible rises in some staples, including low fat milk up over 45%, pasta almost 37%, and butter and cheese around 28%. To make matters worse, Which? found that supermarket own brand and budget ranges have seen even more price rises than the branded options, and in some cases are up 175%.

“As a result, we’re split roughly in half, with 47% spending more on food in order to keep buying their usual groceries, and 51% buying less. Meanwhile, 53% are opting for cheaper food and 37% are trawling the yellow sticker isles and special offers for discounts. We’re clearly doing all the sensible things we can to save money on our food shopping, but still one in six are worried they’ll run out of food and won’t be able to buy more, and one in five are trying to eat smaller portions to make it last.

“If you’re struggling, there are no easy answers, but it’s vital to see whether there’s any extra help you can get. Check whether you can apply for any means-tested benefits, which will not only bring in some extra cash, but will also open the door to other assistance – including more lump sums from the government, and the warm home discount scheme.

“If energy bills are causing nightmares, check to see whether your provider offers any support- or failing that, whether you can get help from the British Gas Energy Support Fund  – you don’t have to be a British Gas customer to qualify. You may also be able to receive a payment from your local council’s hardship fund, although they all have different rules, so you’ll need to check their website.

“If all this seems like too much to navigate alone, it’s worth approaching Citizens Advice, who know the system well and can help you find the support you need. They’ll also be able to let you know about more support available locally, including food banks and ‘warm spaces’, which are designed to provide somewhere warm for you to spend the day.

“You may not feel comfortable reaching out for help, and for some people this will be the first time they have had to do so. But we’re going through extreme times, and if ever there was a time not to have to face things alone, it’s now.”