Opinion: Should the NHS pay your energy bill?

A pilot scheme that sees the UK’s health service provide financial support for the domestic heating costs of low-income, vulnerable people is expanding, raising serious questions about Downing Street’s priorities. 

The Warm Home Prescription scheme was first launched as a trial in December 2021, and saw  28 patients in Gloucestershire receive an average of £647 towards energy bills from the NHS between the start of the pilot and March this year. The initiative is now being expanded to cover heating bills for 150 people across the county through to March 2023. 

According to the Building Research Establishment, cold homes in Britain cost the NHS £857m per year, largely due to the impact on respiratory conditions. In Gloucestershire alone, the fallout of unheated houses and flats in winter amounts to £2.7m per month, although no numbers are available on the exact number of patients and households that correlates to. 

With average domestic energy bills now coming in at £2,500 per year, and that figure set to rise to £3,000 from April, it’s abundantly clear many people in the UK require more help to pay for adequately heated homes, with links between cold environments and exacerbated ill-health long understood. However, while the prescription scheme is a necessary step at the moment, questions must be asked about how this reflects the government’s priorities. 

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From an air pollution perspective, offering more energy support to people can have a positive effect by ensuring fewer homes use high polluting wood burning stoves. Central heating is potentially far better for the atmosphere when we consider the second quarter of this year saw almost 40% of the UK’s total power supply sourced from renewables – a new record. 

Nevertheless, the idea of placing the burden of energy support for the most medically vulnerable on the NHS is at odds with the reality of a health system which, by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s own admission, is on the brink of collapse due to decades of inadequate funding and real term cuts. An alternative to this approach could be to redirect revenue from the energy windfall tax to the prescription scheme.

Levies targeting energy companies that have been posting record profits over the past year are currently used to offer universal but limited support for domestic energy bills, a policy that has already received significant criticism due to the fact the money will ultimately be repaid by the public purse.

Others have pointed out that offering assistance for every home in the country is a bad approach: although the most vulnerable are being offered more money, this is still well-short of what analysts believe is necessary. Reducing or stopping payments for the most affluent would free up more funds for those with the greatest needs, including people with diagnosed medical conditions that worsen in cold conditions, and highly polluted settings. Overall, experts have advised the cash would be far better spent on mitigation measures, such as paying to insulate more properties, bringing down overall power consumption – which accounts for 14% of total UK emissions – and bills in the long-term.


Image: Arthur Lambillotte


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1 year ago

Points taken … thank you. And where you say, ‘From an air pollution perspective, offering more energy support to people can have a positive effect by ensuring fewer homes use high polluting wood burning stoves’ that does rather assume those people would be buying their wood supplies? But as we know many wood burners just gather what they can – for free.

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