Predicting the next twists and turns in the pandemic story, in which we’ve all been unwilling extras for the last 15 months, is evidently a hazardous occupation.
One unfortunate certainty is that, however the country progresses in terms of managing and suppressing the virus, millions of households will be dealing with the financial consequences of the pandemic for some time to come.
Some have already lost their jobs, others will be employed in sectors where the outlook remains precarious, lockdowns and self-isolation requirements have brought other challenges – as have changes in working patterns, domestic arrangements and much more. It’s a sobering thought that we haven’t necessarily seen the full impact yet and, as government support programmes like furlough are withdrawn, we will find out how much these have masked or delayed the full consequences. Additionally, many will be finding themselves in debt difficulties for the first time, along with those for whom this is sadly a more familiar situation.
Energy bills won’t be the only payment that many customers struggle with this winter but they are clearly one of the most important. As an industry, we’re acutely aware that higher demand on top of rising prices and existing or underlying financial difficulties is a worrying combination. Wholesale prices continue to rise steeply – the biggest part of the bill and yet often governed by global factors over which retailers have no control – and while we wait to see how this will affect the next price cap, these are already feeding through to fixed deals.
It’s in recognition of these upcoming challenges that so many retailers have this week signed up to new voluntary winter commitments to support their customers. The new commitments go above and beyond existing obligations for licensed suppliers and also build on additional measures to support customers in need agreed with the government last year at the start of the pandemic. They demonstrate a desire not only to support their customers but to try and make the existence of that support known and easily accessible to as many as possible.
We know customers can be either unaware of the help that’s available or be hesitant to contact those they owe money to. That’s why some retailers partner with debt charities and always encourage customers to seek help rather than ignore the problem. While virtually nobody gets disconnected these days, the fear of that happening will be an unnecessary worry to some when a repayment plan or some other way of providing leeway would provide much needed reassurance.
We can do more – most sectors can when it comes to talking to all their customers. We’ll be looking to work with consumer groups and debt advice charities to continue this work and raise awareness during the autumn.
But the sector also deserves some credit for the help it has already provided and for committing to do more despite facing their own challenges, through this and of course the Vulnerability Commitment. As lockdown first hit last March, suppliers dealt with an initial surge of calls for assistance and responded accordingly. Since then they have supplied hundreds of millions of pounds of support to hundreds of thousands of customers. This is in addition to the existing £1 billion a year provided in support through the Warm Homes Discount and the Energy Company Obligation.
We’re scarcely the only sector grappling with challenges and customers struggling to pay bills and we know how difficult it will be for many of them. But it would also be helpful for these commitments to be seen in the context of the current situation. Retailers are doing this while the vast majority of them are losing money, rather than what is being portrayed in some quarters – an outdated view that sadly seemed to contaminate the government’s recent government retail strategy.
Whatever the perception, our sector will continue to work hard to support our customers as much as possible and to let them know that help and support is available through the challenges of the coming winter.