The government and the energy industry have told disabled people whose lives depend on powered equipment in their homes to draw up their own back-up plans to protect themselves ahead of possible blackouts this winter.
Both the government and the energy regulator Ofgem have confirmed to Disability News Service (DNS) that people who use ventilators, dialysis machines or other equipment must make their own contingency plans rather than expect anything more than basic support from the government or industry in the event of planned power-cuts this winter.
This week, Grant Shapps (pictured), secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS), told MPs that the government had “very developed plans” for “that sort of thing”, when questioned on support plans for “vulnerable customers”.
He told members of the Commons BEIS committee (see 16.39.20 onwards): “I don’t want to alarm anyone in that regard.
“The plans are in any case and every winter… refreshed and renewed.”
But when asked by Disability News Service (DNS) what these “very developed plans” were, a BEIS spokesperson pointed to Priority Service Registers (PSRs).
“Vulnerable customers” can sign up to the registers, which are run by electricity suppliers and distribution network operators (DNOs) and are supposed to provide extra support in the event of energy disruption, such as warning customers when their power is about to be cut off and “signposting” them to support.
But those who sign up are not exempt from blackouts, and if they need a continuous supply of electricity for medical reasons they are told to “seek advice from their local health service provider”.
Ofgem, the energy regulator, said it was “very unlikely” that there would be energy shortages this winter, and insisted it was “working closely with the government, the sector and consumer groups to ensure there is a robust winter plan in place, including a variety of contingencies that can be triggered in the unlikely event of an energy shortage”.
Ofgem said customers with medical needs should join their local PSR but it also made clear that it was up to them “to form a back-up plan of how they would deal with a scheduled outage if it occurred”, with the help of healthcare professionals and equipment providers.
National Grid* has warned that planned national power cuts are possible this winter, with customers in certain parts of the country probably being without power for around three hours per day, although such blackouts are still considered unlikely.
Following that warning, DNS has been trying for more than two months to clarify what contingency plans have been put in place by the government and the energy industry for disabled people who rely on powered equipment such as ventilators and dialysis machines.
So far, neither the industry nor ministers have been able to produce any evidence that such plans are in place and have refused to release any details of their contingency plans.
The Energy Networks Association (ENA), whose members operate the electricity wires, gas pipes and energy system in the UK, and are responsible for protecting those dependent on medical equipment during blackouts, referred again this week to the PSR system.
An ENA spokesperson 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.”
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 is one of seven disabled people who rely on powered equipment, often to keep them alive, who have spoken to DNS this week about possible winter blackouts (see separate story).
When he became concerned last month at the lack of information about possible planned power-cuts, he contacted his electricity supplier, Good Energy, which admitted it had no contingency plans and simply referred him to the priority services register.
Benson said: “Having set the tone by warning of potential power cuts and raised people’s anxiety, the current reassurance rings somewhat hollow.
“The different messages from suppliers is leaving many confused, including me.
“As a consumer, my relationship is with my supplier. I find it incomprehensible that I should need to understand the distribution network to make provision for my safety.
“This is not about sitting in candlelight for a few hours, it’s about being able to breathe.
“Disabled people are not stupid. We’re not expecting to be isolated from any impacts of power outages.
“It’s not unreasonable that our safety is considered and that we’re given advice and support to prepare.
“After all, if cuts do occur then emergency services don’t need to be spending time rescuing disabled people whose safety could have been protected.”
Nigel Pocklington, chief executive of Good Energy, said he was concerned at the lack of clarity from the government on contingency plans.
He said: “Emergency power cuts this winter remain very unlikely and grid operators, government and energy suppliers must communicate responsibly about this as a potential situation.
“This means not only saying ‘it’s unlikely, make sure you are on your network operators’ priority services register’.
“That is important, but those who are medically dependent on their energy supply need to be absolutely clear on what being on a priority services register actually means, so they can plan accordingly.”
He added: “As an energy supplier we are not physically operating any infrastructure, so there is a limit to what we can do in the event of an outage.
“Grid operators are limited too in that they cannot switch energy off or on for individual homes.
“Due to the understandably heightened anxiety this winter we are working more closely than ever with grid operators on this, but would like to see more clarity from government on the plans for vulnerable customers.”
So far, two government departments have relied on exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act to justify their refusal to release reports that would show what contingency plans they have drawn up for this winter.
The Department of Health and Social Care told DNS this week that it would not release any plans it had to protect people who rely on medical equipment at home because the information “relates to policy options not taken forward at that time which Ministers may choose to pursue in future”.
It says that BEIS information it has sent to NHS England includes “policies that are still under development”.
And it argues that releasing the information while winter planning remains in progress “would potentially serve to create confusion and misunderstanding”, with a risk “that time and resources are spent explaining or justifying ideas that are not or may never be finalised”, and that it could “potentially undermine Government relations with key stakeholders in the electricity and gas sectors”.
The Cabinet Office has previously refused to release information about contingency plans under section 24 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to “safeguarding national security”.
The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) said again this week that it was not aware of any “national contingency plans” that have been put in place by the government.
It said its members were “working collaboratively with local resilience forums to help develop a coherent, effective plan to protect those people who will be affected most”.
It added: “Unfortunately, such local and regional planning can be limited by restrictions on data sharing between agencies, an issue that requires national oversight to resolve.”
But ADPH refused to express any concern at the government’s apparent failure to put in place any national contingency plans.
Health and disability charities have continued to express concern this week at the “frustrating” lack of “clear advice and reassurance” from the government, and some have taken their own steps to support disabled people to prepare their own back-up plans.
Fiona Loud, policy director at Kidney Care UK, said: “There is still no clear advice and reassurance from the government for thousands of kidney patients, particularly those on home dialysis, regarding power outages this winter.
“The lack of information on this, particularly during the current cold weather, is frustrating.
“We have produced our own advice for kidney patients which has also been shared with the NHS.”
Rob Burley, director of campaigns, care and support at Muscular Dystrophy UK, said: “We are still seeking assurances that people with muscle-wasting conditions will not face the prospect of blackouts that put the operating of potentially lifesaving equipment at risk.
“The potential impact of power shortages is very concerning, both in terms of the impact to people’s ability to operate equipment such as ventilators and also people potentially limiting the use of powered mobility equipment for fear of running batteries down.
“We’re concerned by the situation and would welcome clarity from government.”
Another charity, Motor Neurone Disease Association, this week received a response to a letter it wrote last month to Shapps, in which it warned that the consequences of a power cut “could be nothing short of fatal” for some people with motor neurone disease and asked what steps BEIS was taking “to ensure they are not put at risk by power cuts”.
Nusrat Ghani, the minister for industry and investment security, said in the response that BEIS was “confident” in its plans “to protect households and businesses in the full range of scenarios this winter”, and was working closely with industry and across government.
But her advice was only for disabled people reliant on equipment to sign up to priority service registers, which she warned “does not guarantee them a power supply”.
She said in the letter: “Those who require a continuous supply of electricity for medical reasons and would need medical support during a power cut, should seek advice from their medical equipment provider and local health service provider.”
But MNDA said yesterday (Wednesday) that this letter merely “reiterates” the need to sign up to the PSR.
An MNDA spokesperson said: “It is disappointing the government is stopping short of taking direct action on this issue.”
She said the charity was instead carrying out its own “contingency work”, including with National Grid, ventilation specialists in the NHS and other charities.
Part of the work is to “understand the ongoing risks and concerns, and to provide information and solutions to people who rely on powered equipment”.
And she said equipment providers are working with those who use the equipment “to ensure it is updated and has the necessary back up, and that people are supported to have arrangements in place”.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “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.”
*National Grid owns the high-voltage electricity transmission network in England and Wales, and – as the electricity system operator – balances supply and demand to ensure homes and businesses in Britain have the electricity they need
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