The government is facing questions over its apparent failure to prepare for the impact of possible power blackouts this winter on disabled people who need electricity to run lifesaving medical and independent living equipment in their homes.
National Grid ESO, which controls the flow of energy around Britain, warned this month that there could be periods this winter when it needs to order “interruptions” to customers’ electricity supply for “short periods”.
This could mean customers in some parts of the country being without power for about three hours a day, according to the Energy Networks Association.
Energy companies keep registers of customers in vulnerable situations, and should alert them in advance to power cuts and potentially provide them with heating and cooking facilities if their supply is cut off, says energy regulator Ofgem.
But there are questions over how many customers energy companies could reach if large parts of the country are facing temporary power blackouts.
And Ofgem’s website fails to detail any support that could be offered in a blackout to tens of thousands of disabled people who would need electricity to run equipment such as ventilators, other respiratory equipment, home dialysis machines, or powered hoists.
Just as in the early weeks of the pandemic, the government is now facing questions over its apparent failure to take measures to protect disabled people at a time of national emergency.
The disabled Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness [Sal] Brinton, questioned junior energy minister Lord Callanan about her concerns this week, as did the crossbench peer and professor of palliative medicine Baroness Finlay.
Lord Callanan told Baroness Brinton that the government would “do all we can to protect the most vulnerable”, but he offered no details of exactly how that might happen.
He had earlier told Baroness Finlay: “Obviously, we are doing everything we can to make sure that there are no blackouts, but if that very unlikely eventuality comes to pass, of course we will want to do all we can to make sure that the most vulnerable are protected.”
Baroness Brinton told Disability News Service (DNS) last night (Wednesday) that the minister appeared “surprised” by her question and “hadn’t understood that there were problems for disabled people and those with long-term conditions who need supplies of electricity and heating to run all their kit.
“The point is that it’s got to be organised. There needs to be a strategy and there needs to be a plan.”
She said that a representative of one of the children’s disability charities had told her that they had spoken to someone in the Department of Health and Social Care “who sounded utterly blank about it”.
She added: “I was very concerned with the minister’s response to my question, because I don’t think he understood the organisation that is needed should there be blackouts in large swathes of the country.”
She is now hoping to speak to the minister and also hopes to put down amendments to the government’s energy bill, which is currently going through its committee stage in the Lords, to ensure measures are taken to protect disabled people and those with long-term health conditions when there are power blackouts.
She is also talking to disability charities about the need to campaign for action.
She said: “This is only going to work if it’s cross-department in government and probably local government as well, as well as the major energy suppliers.
“I really hope that none of this is necessary.
“I just think no-one [in government] understands the scale of this particular problem, but I would love to be proved wrong.”
Baroness Brinton also spoke of her own family’s experience when there was a power cut on the south London estate where they live, and they had to ask for a generator from their energy provider to ensure they could power her three-year-old grand-daughter’s ventilator and heart monitor.
It took more than three hours for the generator to arrive, and by that time her son had packed up all the equipment and driven his daughter to Baroness Brinton’s home an hour-and-a-half away.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “The government needs to start emergency planning with health and care systems, to ensure that disabled people reliant on health-related equipment aren’t left without essential support during winter energy blackouts.”
She said it was also crucial to remember that the “dire” cost-of-living situation could leave millions of disabled people “with no choice” but to turn off their energy supply voluntarily, even without any blackouts.
She said this was because of disabled people on prepayment meters “who pay more for their supply and will be forced to disconnect when their money runs out, whatever their impairment or health condition.
“Prepayment meters should be urgently phased out and no new customers should be moved to them.”
Mark Baggley, manager of Choices and Rights Disability Coalition in Hull, who uses a ventilator at night while he’s sleeping, told DNS that he would be unable to go to sleep if there was a power cut, because his ventilator only has a battery that lasts an hour.
He said: “I could use it for an hour, but I wouldn’t be able to sleep because I can’t sleep without the ventilator; I wouldn’t be able to get my breath.”
He is registered as a customer in a vulnerable situation with his electricity supplier, EDF, but is not clear what measures they would take to support him in a power blackout.
His consultant has told him that there are about 1,000 other users of ventilators and similar equipment in Yorkshire and Humberside.
Baggley said: “I am concerned about it and I have spoken to other people who have said they are concerned as well.
“I don’t know what the energy companies have planned. You would think there must be some plan, but I don’t know what that plan is.”
He added: “It just seems like it’s another thing the government have not thought about from disabled people’s perspective because they don’t talk to us enough and they don’t listen to us enough.”
DNS asked EDF what support it would be able to offer customers like Baggley in the event of a blackout this winter.
It pointed to the website of the Energy Networks Association, which says that most customers who are medically dependent on electricity “will be familiar with the process and limitations of their equipment as power cuts can occur from time-to-time during a typical year”.
It says: “These customers often have backup power sources to keep vital equipment powered for several hours during a power failure.
“Customers who require a continuous supply of electricity for medical reasons and would need medical support during a power cut, should seek advice from their local health service provider.”
An EDF spokesperson said this morning that it was the responsibility of distribution network operators (DNOs) “to ensure customers dependent on medical equipment are protected during blackouts”.
DNOs, also known as energy network operators, own and operate the power lines and infrastructure that connect the electricity network to individual properties. In Baggley’s case, his DNO appears to be Northern Powergrid.
She said: “EDF proactively seeks to identify vulnerable customers and has robust processes in place to pass this information on to DNOs, to ensure they are aware of and can support customers like Mark in the event of a blackout.
“We recognise that some of our customers will be feeling very worried about the situation; that is why our customer operations team are conducting a full review of our preparedness for potential rota disconnections this winter and will continue to work closely with the DNOs and National Grid.”
Picture: (From left to right): Fazilet Hadi, Mark Baggley and Baroness Brinton
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…