UK cost of living crisis: Millions of older Britons fear grim choices this winter as prices rise

But over the past three months, a 77-year-old widow from Oxfordshire in the south of England has lost almost 25 pounds as a result of eating only one cooked meal a day – with a piece of fruit or a sandwich for dinner. .

DeBurgo, who relies on her state pension and supplemental retirement benefit, says her groceries bills have already nearly doubled in about a month, and rising fuel costs are further troubling her winter energy bills.

“I don’t want to end up turning into a skeleton… this has to stop eventually. But whether I can afford to eat by then, I don’t know,” she told CNN by phone. interview.

The average UK household will see its annual electricity bill rise to £3,549 (roughly $4,180) from October – an increase of £1,578 ($1,765), an 80% increase – after the country’s energy regulator raised the cap prices last week. The price cap sets the maximum amount that energy providers can charge for each unit of energy and gas.

This is a crisis that should be at the forefront of the government. But instead, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is virtually absent, having gone on two vacations in less than a month. His critics accuse him of washing his hands of the energy crisis and shifting the blame to Russia’s war in Ukraine. “We also know that if we pay with our electricity bills for the atrocities of Vladimir Putin, then the people of Ukraine pay with their blood,” Johnson said during an August 24 visit to Kyiv.

Meanwhile, Downing Street said the next prime minister should present any major new spending plans to support those who are struggling. Two candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, are currently vying to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore prime minister, with results expected on September 5. Only ordinary members of the Conservative Party who make up less than 0.3% of the electorate can vote. in the competition. Demographics show that they are more likely to be white, male and middle class than the UK population as a whole.

And while research shows that older people are more likely to vote conservative, neither candidate has laid out a clear plan for how to deal with the cost-of-living crisis that is already keenly felt by many in this age group.

Conservative Party leader candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

About 2 million retirees were already living in poverty before the crisis, according to the Center for Better Aging, a charity dedicated to improving the lives of older people, whose 2022 annual report showed poorer retirees in 2021 than the previous year.

According to data from the Money and Pensions Service, sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, about 44% of people who have reached the current UK retirement age of 66 say it is their main source of income. Most retirees receive a basic state pension of £141.85 a week (about $170) or about £7,400 ($8,770) a year, with a new pension introduced in 2016 of about £9,600. pounds sterling ($11,376) a year. The state pension rose 3.1% in April, well below the rate of inflation at the time, at 9%. The next increase in the state pension will be in April next year.

“So these people have already been struggling and now we are in a situation where they are going to get even worse and many more will fall into poverty because of what is happening,” said Morgan Vine, head of policy and influence at the charity. Independent Age.

The people surveyed by Independent Age in June and July painted a grim picture of their daily lives. “I turned off the heating, I don’t clean the floor that often. I don’t vacuum that often, I only wash dishes when absolutely necessary, I can no longer bake with my grandchildren, which breaks my heart,” she said. one whose name was not given.

“Vacation is a thing of the past, social life is a thing of the past, if costs continue to rise, I have no answers, I would not mind working, but I am 88 years old and no one needs me,” said another respondent, also unnamed.

Such poverty exacerbates health conditions, while life expectancy also declines, according to a report by the Center for Better Aging, which notes that the number of years older people spend in good health is also declining.

The NHS Confederation, the body representing the leaders of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), said this month that fuel shortages, in particular, create a “vicious circle of need for medical care”, explaining that doctors can treat a patient’s illness, but if illness… – for example, a chest infection – is caused by cold, damp housing, the cycle of infection will continue when the patient returns home.

It’s a worry that’s on DeBurgo’s mind. She doesn’t know how she’ll manage to keep warm this winter to deal with the symptoms associated with her fibromyalgia and arthritis.

“I think the government thinks we should either starve to death or freeze to death,” DeBurgo said, noting that she has never voted conservatively and does not identify with any political party.

DeBurgo worries about how she will heat her house during the winter when electricity prices are skyrocketing.

Vine shares those concerns. “Obviously, we are incredibly concerned that colder months are coming because we really think that this will lead to an increase in the number of deaths of older people,” she said.

Almost 10,000 people died in England and Wales in 2021 because their homes were too cold. according to the National Health Service.

In a statement last week, NHS leaders warned of a looming “humanitarian crisis” if the government does not address energy costs, saying fuel shortages “will inevitably lead to a significant increase in demand for already very fragile services” and could increase the number of annual deaths associated with cold in homes.

Hospitals in the UK are already close to buckling under the pressure, with older people particularly vulnerable to service gaps, including record high hospital queues and a shortage of workers.

In August, there were two examples of such failures in the country. A 90-year-old woman reportedly waited 40 hours for an ambulance after falling from her home in Cornwall, southwest England. Her son, Steven Sims, wrote on Facebook that she fell on Sunday evening and that the ambulance arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and that his mother then waited another 20 hours to be examined by a doctor at the hospital. “The system is completely broken,” he told the BBC’s Cornish service. CNN has reached out to Cornwall’s NHS Foundation for comment.

And in another case in Cornwall, an 87-year-old man waited 15 hours in a makeshift shelter for an ambulance after breaking seven ribs and a fractured pelvis, his daughter told the BBC.

Meanwhile, the conservative leadership rivalry is largely devoid of serious debate about the full extent of the crisis facing the health service. However, Truss pledged last week to send £13bn (about $15.4bn) of funding to close the NHS backlog of nearly 7m people in the adult welfare sector if she is elected. Sunak has vowed to tackle NHS waiting lists and said last month he would introduce penalties for patients who miss doctor’s appointments, a proposal rejected by health officials as unfair and costly to administer.

Many welcomed Trouss’s proposal to increase funding for social protection; however, experts warn that this is a false dichotomy as this investment is much needed in the NHS as well.

And while the energy crisis has drawn more attention from Conservative candidates, Truss and Sunak’s plans, beyond excluding energy price freezes, remain unclear.

Truss said tax cuts should be the main response to skyrocketing bills and hinted last week that if she is chosen, she would quickly help retirees with an emergency living wage package, without giving details. Sunak said he would find up to £10 billion ($11.8 billion) to help people facing rising electricity bills.

Meanwhile, the government announced that eligible households in England, Scotland and Wales will receive £400 (about $473) spread over six installments to help with rising fuel bills from October.

Protesters against rising electricity prices near Downing Street in January.

But many campaigners say it’s not enough.

Dennis Reed, director of seniors group Silver Voices, told CNN that some of his organization’s Conservative Party members left the party, noting a number of broken promises.

In April, the Conservative government broke a campaign promise by suspending for a year the so-called “triple lock” formula, a measure that raises basic state pensions by either 2.5%, inflation, or average wage growth. , whichever is greater.

“People are furious about this,” Reid said, adding that after working 50 or 60 years and paying taxes, people expect to be able to live their last years with dignity. “But that’s not what’s happening now.”

The government has promised to restore the triple lock guarantee by April next year, but many pensioners say the damage has already been done.

“We may have problems with short-term (temporary) memory, but our long-term memory is strong, and I think it will resonate with conservatives—whenever that happens,” Reid said.

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