‘Starve or freeze to death’: Millions of older Britons fear a stark choice this winter as costs go up


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

DeBurgo, who relies on her state pension and a supplemental retirement loan, says her grocery bills have nearly doubled in the course of about a month, with rising fuel costs even more worrisome for her winter utility bill.

“I don’t want to end up as a skeleton… eventually it will have to stop. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford to eat by then,” she told CNN in a phone interview.

The average UK household will see its annual energy bill rise to £3,549 (about $4,180) from October – up from £1,578 ($1,765), an 80% increase – after the country’s energy regulator raised the price cap last week. The price ceiling determines the maximum amount that energy suppliers may charge per unit of energy and gas.

It is a crisis that should be central to government action. But instead, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson was virtually absent, taking two vacations in less than a month. His critics have accused him of washing his hands of the energy crisis and blaming Russia’s war in Ukraine. “We also know that if we pay our utility bills for Vladimir Putin’s evil, the people of Ukraine will pay with their blood,” Johnson said during a visit to Kiev on Aug. 24.

Meanwhile, Downing Street has said it is up to the next prime minister to introduce major new spending plans to support those in need. Two candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, are currently competing to become the next Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister. The results are expected on September 5. Only members of the Conservative party, who represent less than 0.3% of the electorate, can vote. in the match. Demographics suggest they are more white, male and middle class than the general UK population.

And while research shows older people are more likely to vote conservatively, neither candidate has outlined a clear plan for addressing a cost of living crisis that is already acutely felt by many in that age group.

Conservative party leader candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss.

According to data from the Center for Aging Better, a charity focused on improving the lives of older people, whose 2022 annual report showed more than 200,000 poor retirees in 2021 than in the previous year.

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

“So those people already had a hard time, and now we’re in a situation where they’re going to have an even worse time and a lot more will have fallen into poverty because of what’s happening,” said Morgan Vine, head of policy and advocacy at the ministry. of Foreign Affairs. charity Independent Age.

People who responded to an Independent Age survey in June and July painted a bleak picture of their daily lives. “I turned off my heating, I don’t mop my floor that often. I don’t vacuum that often, I only wash when I really have to. I can’t bake with my grandchildren anymore and that breaks my heart,” said one, whose name was not given.

“Holidays a thing of the past, social life a thing of the past, if the costs continue to rise I have no answers, don’t mind working but am 88 nobody wants me”, says another respondent, also not mentioned by name.

Such poverty worsens health conditions, and life expectancy also declines, according to the Center for Aging Better report, which noted that the number of years older people spend in good health is also decreasing.

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

It’s a concern that concerns DeBurgo. She’s not sure how she can afford to keep the heat on this winter to manage the symptoms associated with her fibromyalgia and arthritis.

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

DeBurgo worries about how she'll keep her house heated during the winter when energy costs rise.

Vine reflects such concerns. “Obviously, we’re incredibly concerned now that the colder months are coming, because we think it’s going to lead to more older people dying,” she said.

According to the NHS, nearly 10,000 people in England and Wales died in 2021 because their homes were too cold.

In a statement last week, NHS leaders warned of an impending “humanitarian crisis” if the government does not address energy costs, saying that fuel poverty “will inevitably lead to significant additional demand for what are already highly vulnerable services”, and could are increasing the number of annual deaths related to cold houses.

Hospitals in Britain are already on the brink of collapsing under the pressure, with the elderly particularly vulnerable to service gaps such as hospital waiting lists reaching record highs and a shortage of workers.

In August, the country saw two examples of such deficiencies. A 90-year-old woman reportedly waited 40 hours for an ambulance after falling at home in Cornwall, in the south west of England. Her son, Stephen Syms, posted on Facebook that she fell on a Sunday night and that the ambulance arrived on Tuesday afternoon, and that his mother then waited another 20 hours for a doctor at the hospital. “The system is completely broken,” he told BBC Cornwall. CNN has contacted the Cornwall NHS Trust for comment.

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

Meanwhile, the conservative leadership contest has been largely devoid of a vigorous debate about the full extent of the crisis facing the health service. However, Truss promised last week that she would divert £13 billion (about $15.4 billion) in funding to cover an NHS backlog of nearly 7 million people to the adult social care sector, if elected. Sunak has vowed to tackle the NHS’s waiting lists and said last month he would introduce fines for patients who missed doctors’ appointments, a proposal rejected by health leaders as unfair and expensive to administer.

Truss’s proposal to add more money to social care has been welcomed by many; experts warn, however, that it is a false dichotomy, as that investment is badly needed in the NHS as well.

And while the energy crisis has attracted more attention from conservative candidates, Truss and Sunak’s plans, beyond ruling out a price freeze on energy costs, are still unclear.

Truss has said tax cuts should be the main answer to rising bills and hinted last week that if elected, she would quickly help retirees with an emergency livelihood package, without providing details. Sunak has said he would find up to £10 billion ($11.8 billion) to help people facing rising energy bills.

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

Protesters demonstrate in January against the rise in energy costs outside Downing Street.

But many campaigners say it’s not enough.

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

In April, the Conservative government broke an election promise by suspending the so-called “triple lock” formula for a year – a measure to ensure basic pensions rise by 2.5%, inflation or average income growth, based on of which is the largest.

“People are outraged about that,” Reed said, adding that after 50 or 60 years of working and paying taxes, people expect to be able to spend their twilight years in dignity. “But that’s not what’s happening now.”

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

“We may have short (term) memory problems, but our long-term memories are strong and I think that will return to the conservatives — whenever that is,” Reed said.

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