A power company has dodged questions over its plans to fix some of the gaping holes in the safety net that – during a power-cut – should protect disabled people who need electricity to run lifesaving medical equipment in their own homes.
The new project by UK Power Networks (UKPN) appears to be a long-awaited acknowledgement that the current system to protect disabled people who rely on equipment such as ventilators, feeding pumps and oxygen saturation monitors is not good enough.
Last winter, Disability News Service asked repeated questions of the government and the energy industry over their apparent failure to prepare for the impact on many disabled people of possible power blackouts.
The concerns were raised after National Grid ESO, which controls the flow of energy around Britain, warned there could be periods when it needed to order “interruptions” to customers’ electricity supply for “short periods”.
But the government refused to reveal any plans it might have to protect disabled people who rely on life-saving medical equipment in their homes if there were blackouts during the fuel crisis.
Instead, government departments referred to priority services registers, which are maintained by individual power companies.
But the energy industry was unable to explain what protection the registers would offer those who rely on life-saving equipment, other than the usual “extra help, including advance notice of planned power cuts and priority support”.
The industry also made clear that such customers would not be exempt from any blackouts and “should seek advice from their local health service provider”.
But now UKPN, one of six distribution network operators (DNOs) responsible for maintaining the electricity network across Britain, is trialling a scheme that is set to be rolled out later this year.
Under its Power Protect trial, UKPN customers who are signed up to the priority services register and rely on life-saving medical equipment will be loaned a free portable battery pack (pictured) if there is a power cut over four hours long.
It says the battery packs should be able to power a standard feeding pump for more than 17 hours.
UKPN, which owns and runs the cables and substations which deliver electricity from the national grid to homes and businesses across London and the east and south-east of England, says about 120,000 customers on its priority services register currently rely on life-saving medical equipment.
It says its new “safety net” scheme is “a huge step forward for the utility industry and is the first time that a UK electricity network operator has gone to such lengths to provide support to vulnerable customers during unplanned power cuts”.
The trial is taking place in London, Maidstone, Canterbury and Bury St Edmunds.
Boris Yazadzhiyan, UKPN’s innovation programme manager, said: “For people who depend on potentially-lifesaving medical equipment, they need the confidence they’ll be safe on those very rare occasions when power is temporarily unavailable, and this new scheme is doing just that.”
Despite issuing a press release about the trial, UKPN refused to answer questions about the scheme this week, including whether it was an acknowledgement that there were holes in the safety net for many disabled customers.
It also refused to say when it expected the scheme to roll out to all those disabled customers who needed its protection, and why it was only offering the project for power cuts lasting more than four hours.
The Energy Networks Association (ENA), whose members include UKPN, refused to say if the other five DNOs would run similar schemes for their disabled customers.
It also refused to say if the UKPN project was an acknowledgement that the current systems to protect disabled people who rely on electricity to power their life-saving equipment were not good enough.
But an ENA spokesperson said in a statement: “Network operators have been working closely with the government and the NHS to ensure we are coordinated in our approach to customers who have mains-powered, health critical medical equipment at home.
“People who rely on this equipment should contact their care provider if they are unclear what they need to do in a power cut.
“They should also join the priority services register run by their local network operator so that they can receive additional support available to them.”
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