The Cost of Living in the U.K. Imperils Vulnerable Britons

CLACTON-ON-SEA, England — The bills are mounting for Maureen Hart, a former librarian living on a fixed income after hip and back pain from a fall forced her into an early retirement.

The gas and electric bill for her bungalow in Clacton-on-Sea, a seaside town east of London, more than tripled in April, as utility bills did throughout Britain when a government cap on energy payments loosened. To save money and afford the help she needs to wash her hair and clean, Ms. Hart, 77, is cutting back on taxi rides to visit her son several towns away, and keeping the heat off, even if it aggravates her pain.

“You really don’t think you will be one of those that cannot afford to heat yourself,” Ms. Hart said. “There must be thousands more people who are like me thinking: What went wrong?”

Inflation was already on the rise in Britain and elsewhere before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, triggered by rising natural gas prices and supply-chain shortages after pandemic lockdowns. The war has abruptly pushed the price of oil and gas even higher.

Now consumer prices in Britain are rising at their fastest rate in 30 years, and wages are failing to keep up, putting a squeeze on household incomes not seen since records began in 1956.

The cost-of-living jump is especially dismaying for older people and others with lower or limited incomes, such as those living on government pensions and disability payments, which remained largely the same even as inflation hit.

April has been especially tough. Earlier in the month the government raised its cap on energy prices, which follow the global gas prices, by 54 percent, a move that affects 22 million households. The cap, which is reset twice a year, is expected to rise again in October, ahead of the icy winter months.

The continuing war in Ukraine not only promises to keep energy bills high for the foreseeable future, it is also pushing up the price of food, because Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of wheat, corn, barley and cooking oil. Overall inflation in Britain is expected to hit a peak of 9 percent later this year. According to figures released by the government on Friday, over 90 percent of adults said their cost of living had increased over a two-week period in April, largely because of food and energy bills.

Demonstrators in the thousands took to the streets in cities across the country last month to protest the soaring cost of living. Help lines for older people are reporting an increasing number of calls asking about assistance with energy bills in recent weeks.

And many people who had already culled their household budgets are going through them once more, forgoing meals and in the most extreme cases being disconnected from the electricity and gas for periods, according to some advocacy organizations.

Even before the latest escalations, households were feeling the strain, with over three million people in England alone facing “fuel poverty,” or struggling to afford to heat one’s home, in 2020, according to government figures.

In April, almost half of adults paying energy bills said they had struggled to afford those charges, and one in five was unable to buy fuel at some point, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics. Nearly a quarter of adults in Britain said it was very difficult to pay their households bills in March compared with a year earlier.

Opposition lawmakers pressed the government on Wednesday on its plan to tackle high inflation and the economic slowdown in the country, accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of ignoring the problem. Mr. Johnson pointed to a raft of measures to help offset the energy cap increase, including some tax rebates, and a falling unemployment rate.

Britain has experienced soaring energy prices before, but the current situation is “once in a generation,” said Jack Leslie, a senior economist with the Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank focused on improving living standards for those with lower incomes. He added that there was no indication that energy prices would subside imminently. “This is on another level,” he said.

Ms. Hart, who rents her book-filled bungalow, moved to Clacton-on-Sea for the sun and the outdoors, she said. With her difficulty walking long distances nowadays, her social life consists of going to the beachfront and visits from a helper who comes several times a week to assist with washing her hair for about 75 British pounds a month. And with news that her rent has also risen 20 pounds a month, she is even thinking of losing the helper.

“All my family and friends say the same thing — what are we supposed to cut back?” she said.

She is looking into whether she can take advantage of some measures that the government instituted last month to help people with rising costs, including a £500 million grant for local authorities to distribute to lower-income households.

But critics and campaigners have said the measures do not match the severity of the rising prices, repeating a longtime plea for benefits to be raised.

“Previously the expectation was that older people would be able to tighten their belts,” said David Southgate, a policy and research officer at Age U.K., a group supporting older people. “The difficulty now is that there are no more cuts older people can make to their household budgets.”

People living on disability payments because they are unable to work are also facing extra difficulties amid the rising prices.

In Liverpool, Maxine Williams, 52, said keeping warm is an essential part of managing a disorder affecting her connective tissues, known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. But since her energy bill doubled in April, Ms. Williams has begun cutting down her weekly shopping list to essentials, microwaving meals instead of using the oven and canceling TV streaming services. What has remained essentially the same this year is her disability payment, she said.

“I can’t just switch the heating on, because I can’t afford to,” she said, adding that it had left her more nauseated and in pain. “It’s been tough.”

To help one another through fears of a cost-of-living crisis, many older people — ranging from anxious to resigned — are banding together.

On a recent sunny afternoon, dozens of people gathered for a lunch in Jaywick, near Clacton-on-Sea, where residents paid £1.50 (about $2) as volunteers served them tea, coffee and a two-course meal. Some people declined to discuss their finances, citing the event as an escape from a source of stress.

It was the social highlight of the week for Patricia Hutton, 89, a Jaywick resident, who said events like this kept her going through times of crisis. Like everybody’s, her bills have gone up, but with her arthritis and some mobility issues it was hard to keep the heat and lights off.

“I pay all my bills by direct debit, and if there’s no money left for food there’s no money left for food,” she said.

Her friend Jennifer Belcher, 67, has begun going out early in the morning and buying food discounted because it was set to expire soon in order to help Ms. Hutton reduce her grocery expenditure. “We’ve saved her nearly £40 a month on her shopping,” she said.

Ms. Belcher’s own energy bill more than doubled last month, she said. Now, holidays are a thing of the past, as is buying new shoes and clothes. “Is our pension coming up in line with it? Is it heck!” she said.

In a country where excess deaths in the winter number in the tens of thousands, the warmer weather has dulled some of the force. But for many Britons wary of the difficult choices the colder months will bring, the summer will be a hard one to enjoy.

“Next winter what are we going do?” Ms. Belcher said. “Build a fire in the garden?”

Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.

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