The government is refusing to release documents which could show what measures it is taking – if any – to protect disabled people who rely on medical equipment in their own homes, in the event of power blackouts this winter.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since October to secure details of any government plans to protect disabled people who need electricity to run lifesaving medical equipment such as ventilators and dialysis machines in the event of three-hour blackouts this winter.
But three government departments – the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – have already refused to say if they have drawn up plans.
Now the Cabinet Office has joined them, refusing to release any details of ministerial meetings on preparing for possible winter blackouts, which are likely to have included any plans for how to protect disabled people with a critical need for electricity.
The government’s response to the energy security emergency is being coordinated by Oliver Dowden, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who was appointed to that role on 25 October and, says the Cabinet Office, “has been kept closely informed of energy security work since then”.
In response to a DNS freedom of information request, the Cabinet Office said that it did hold information about ministerial meetings (and supporting material) held to prepare for winter blackouts.
But it said it was refusing to release the information under section 24 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to “safeguarding national security”.
The Cabinet Office said in its response: “Whilst there is a definite public interest in matters related to national security, it is important that this sensitive information is protected so as not to unduly enhance the level of risk posed to energy security this winter.
“We remain firmly of the opinion that sufficient information has already been communicated to the public on this winter’s energy outlook by the Electricity System Operation, the Gas System Operation, BEIS, and others.
“Therefore, taking into account all the circumstances of this case, we have determined that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.”
DNS is appealing this decision, as it has heard from numerous organisations concerned that “sufficient information” has not been shared with disabled people who rely on lifesaving equipment in their homes.
The Association of Directors of Public Health is among organisations that have raised concerns, and told DNS last month that it was not aware of any “national contingency plans” that have been put in place by the government to protect those who rely on power for critical medical equipment in their homes.
An NHS integrated care board has told DNS that no national guidance or support around the issue has been sent to the NHS in England by DHSC.
And disabled people and charities that represent people with long-term health conditions have also told DNS they are concerned about the lack of information coming from the government and other organisations.
Government departments have repeatedly referred to priority services registers, which are maintained by individual power companies, but the energy industry has itself been unable to explain what protection the registers will offer those who sign up, other than the usual “extra help, including advance notice of planned power cuts and priority support”.
The industry has made clear that customers on the register will not be exempt from any blackouts, and that those who need a continuous supply of electricity for medical reasons “should seek advice from their local health service provider”.
Any other support they might be able to secure is not yet clear.
The emergency winter power cuts are said to be unlikely but possible.
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