Ministers from three separate government departments have refused to say if they have any plans to protect disabled people who need electricity to run lifesaving medical equipment in their homes if there are power blackouts this winter.
Ministers from 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 (DLUHC) were all asked, in written parliamentary questions, if they would publish their plans.
But all three ministers ignored that question, with social care minister Helen Whately also refusing to say whether her department had sent out any guidance to help NHS services protect people using medical equipment at home in the event of blackouts.
Government departments, the energy industry, and other public bodies, have repeatedly dodged responsibility for producing plans for this winter.
The written questions had been put to ministers by Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people.
When Whately was asked which DHSC minister was responsible for “ensuring the safety of people with long-term health conditions who use lifesaving equipment, including ventilators and dialysis machines, in their own homes in the event of power blackouts this winter”, and if DHSC would publish its plans for protecting them, she said she was the minister responsible for people with long-term condition.
But she then suggested the energy industry was responsible for ensuring the safety of disabled customers, telling Foxcroft: “In a power outage scenario, the Priority Services Register is maintained by electricity network operators to support the most vulnerable.”
Asked what guidance DHSC had sent out to local NHS services, she said: “Care providers and equipment suppliers support those with long term conditions to safely use medical equipment at home and in cases where the equipment is disrupted.”
She again pointed to the register.
When BEIS minister Graham Stuart was asked which minister in his department was responsible for the issue, and to release any plans it had in place, he said it was DHSC that was “responsible for working with the nation’s health and social care sectors to support individuals with electricity dependent medical equipment at home”.
DLUHC minister Felicity Buchan provided a similar answer, but said her department been working with local resilience forums in England “to support local areas in their regular planning for winter across a range of risks, including making sure the most vulnerable are supported”.
But Buchan failed to mention any plans to protect disabled people who need electricity to run lifesaving medical equipment in their homes, and a DLUHC spokesperson refused to comment further.
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 register will offer, 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”.
A spokesperson for the Energy Networks Association said yesterday (Wednesday) that it was the responsibility of individual disabled people to join the register, and to then put their own personal plans in place.
He said: “Network operators are in contact with Priority Services Register customers throughout the year, as unplanned power cuts occur from time-to-time, often for reasons outside operators’ control.
“This is why customers who are reliant on power in this way have plans in place to meet their personal circumstances. If they don’t, they should speak to their medical provider.”
He said that any emergency power cuts this winter would be “controlled” and would last about three hours at a time.
The emergency power cuts are said to be unlikely but possible.
Disability News Service (DNS) is now in its sixth week of attempting to obtain evidence that plans to protect disabled people will be in place in the event of three-hour blackouts this winter.
It has already learned that no guidance has been sent out by DHSC to the NHS in England, and that the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) is not aware of any “national contingency plans” that have been put in place by the government.
Local resilience forums, the multi-agency networks set up across England and Wales to ensure each area is prepared for emergencies, have been unable to provide evidence that suitable plans are in place.
Charities that represent people with long-term health conditions have told DNS they are concerned about the lack of information coming from the government and other organisations.
This week, a spokesperson for BEIS – which is dealing with all questions about the blackout on behalf of the government – refused to comment on DHSC’s failure to send guidance to local NHS services, the concerns raised by ADPH and the failure of the three ministers to point to any evidence that the government has put plans in place.
Instead, it pointed to a statement issued last month*.
Foxcroft said: “This winter, disabled people need to know that they will be kept safe and won’t be at risk of blackouts.
“After submitting numerous questions to BEIS, DHSC and DLUHC about their plans to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals will be protected, it seems that each department is keen to redirect the responsibility elsewhere with no mention of a plan for the coming winter.
“This government keeps running from one crisis to the next with no serious plan.
“It’s time they take responsibility and get to work protecting the most vulnerable.”
*Last month, BEIS said: “The Priority Services Register is a free support service to ensure vulnerable domestic energy consumers and those with special requirements have access to additional support in the event of a supply disruption. The UK has a secure and diverse energy system. We are confident in our plans to protect households and businesses, including vulnerable households, in the full range of scenarios this winter, in light of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. We continue to work closely with Ofgem and National Grid to prepare for the upcoming winter.”
Picture: (From left) Felicity Buchan, Graham Stuart and Helen Whately
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