The government is refusing to reveal any plans it had to protect disabled people who rely on life-saving medical equipment in their homes if there were power blackouts during the winter fuel crisis.
Even though the risk of power cuts is now over until next winter, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is refusing to say what action it was proposing to take if the threatened three-hour blackouts had taken place.
This means that there will be no opportunity to hold the government to account over the plans – and to push for improvements – ahead of next winter.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying for months to secure information from the government on how it proposed to protect those who rely on equipment in their homes such as ventilators and dialysis machines.
When DNS asked DHSC in November for those plans through a freedom of information request, it refused to release the documents because they related to “the formulation and development of government policy” and so engaged an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.
It argued that the information related to “policy options not taken forward at that time which Ministers may choose to pursue in future” and therefore to “ongoing policy formulation and development” and so the public interest “lies in favour of withholding this information”.
DNS resubmitted the request after the winter finished and there was no longer the possibility of power blackouts.
But DHSC has refused again to release the information.
It is now arguing that “national-level power outages can occur at any time and from a range of causes not limited to winter” and so the information “continues to relate to ongoing policy formulation and development”.
It concludes: “We therefore consider that the public interest lies in favour of withholding this information.”
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer who has previously raised concerns about the lack of planning in the House of Lords, told DNS: “This is an extraordinary letter from the Department of Health and Social Care, which if taken literally would mean no information would ever be published again.
“Those people living with electrical appliances need to know how they would be protected in the event of large power supply failure.
“This response shows that yet again ministers just don’t care.”
Alan Benson, a leading disabled campaigner, particularly on accessible transport, relies on a collection of vital equipment at home, including a day-time and a night-time ventilator, two powered wheelchairs, and an electric hoist, while he also needs to stay warm for health reasons.
He said: “What I need from government is a plan on how I am protected in the event
of power-cuts, or at the very least reassurance that a plan exists that can be quickly activated.
“Instead I conclude from this response that plans are still being formulated.
“What’s worse is that these cuts are clearly still a real possibility. I feel less safe now than going into winter.
“As we push towards carbon free energy electricity, demand will continue to rise, increasing the risk of supply failure all year round.
“It’s unacceptable that disabled people are being hung out to dry. We need answers for our safety and sanity.”
Mark Baggley, manager of Choices and Rights Disability Coalition in Hull, who uses a ventilator at night while he’s sleeping, said: “I think it is disgraceful that the government are refusing to release the relevant documents and wonder what they are trying to hide, or is it simply [that] there is no plan?”
He is registered as a customer in a vulnerable situation with his electricity supplier, EDF, which referred him during the winter to advice from the Energy Networks Association which says customers in his position “should seek advice from their local health service provider”.
He told DNS: “It appears clear to me that the government has not thought about and probably doesn’t care [about] the effect any power cuts would have on disabled people in this situation.”
He said he had spoken to several people at the hospital he attends for treatment about his situation during the winter and they had “no clear solution”.
He said: “My ventilator has a two-hour battery backup and after that time, I wouldn’t be able to use it and would have to get up as I can’t sleep without it.”
Government departments have repeatedly referred to priority services registers, which are maintained by individual power companies, but the energy industry has been unable to explain what protection the registers would offer those who signed up, other than the usual “extra help, including advance notice of planned power cuts and priority support”.
The industry made clear that customers on the register would 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”.
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