Southern Water has begun to think about extending financial assistance to help households facing continuing hardships due to coronavirus.

As part of our Keeping us Connected series, Southern’s vulnerability lead Rachel Ryan-Crisp told Utility Week how the company reached out to thousands of vulnerable households under lockdown and registered more people for help than ever before.

Southern is now considering how it can keep helping the scores of people who signed up for financial assistance and the priority service register during the coronavirus outbreak as social isolation and lockdown brought vulnerability into the spotlight.

Like the rest of the sector, Southern acted quickly to offer payment breaks and social tariff options for households facing financial troubles related to coronavirus.

It is now exploring options for the 4,000 billpayers who are on a payment break. Ryan-Crisp said the next step after the initial three-month break is to understand the individual circumstances of households and the hardships they make be facing.

She said: “The initial decision to do a three-month payment break was the right thing to do immediately but now we have to consider a proper support package as the situation continues.”

With the extent of economic impacts of coronavirus unknown, Ryan-Crisp said the company is considering ways to “broadly categorise” customers to be able to offer relevant assistance based on billpayers’ personal situations.

“Our focus is to continue to reach out to people who are struggling and help them,” Ryan-Crisp said. “People should never be in a stressful or anxious position in relation to water bills because we can always help.”

The priority register was put to the test under lockdown when a mains supply burst leaving 30,000 householders without water in Hastings, East Sussex.

Around 200 staff – including volunteers distributing 67,670 bottles of water to vulnerable and sheltering households – had to adhere to social distancing while working to repair to the 11km of pipe that needed draining and cleaning before it could be repaired and refilled.

Ryan-Crisp said the effort of the whole team was to be commended with volunteers from across the business all going to Hastings to distribute water to homes in need, including homes where people were shielding.

Despite the risks to staff, Ryan-Crisp said the teams from Southern “genuinely wanted to help” when people were in need as part of an effort coordinated by implementation manager Nina Downes.

Ryan-Crisp said more customers than ever have identified as in need of additional assistance either financially or for the priority register. Shielding households have been encouraged to sign up for assistance, Ryan-Crisp said the uplift in numbers has been “really encouraging”.

“It’s really positive because we knew we only had a small proportion of vulnerable customers so now we have a lot more registered it’s good to know who needs help.”

The increase is attributable to the combination of a data sharing activity in March with UK Power Networks, which led to a lot of registrations, as well as many who signed up because of coronavirus.

Ryan-Crisp said people have been more actively looking for help because of Covid-19 and interactions with community groups and stakeholders has shown a lot more people seeking assistance than before.

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