The UK is gripped by the worst cost of living emergency since the 1980s, with inflation hitting 7% – and threatening to breach 9% – driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supply chain disruption during the pandemic.
In signs of the seriousness of the crisis, energy company chief executives intervened recently to demand MPs offer households more support – with the E.ON boss warning up to 40% of people in Britain could fall into fuel poverty after Ofgem raises the energy price cap again in October.
Three people speak about how they’re affected.
‘We stopped using the oven the moment they hiked the energy price up’
Andy Mercer, 54, a self-employed painter and decorator based in Abergele, north Wales
For Andy Mercer, inflationary pressures mean that after 10 years of running his own business, he’s now considering closing it down.
“It hurts to think about it, I’d be a broken man,” he said. Daily staples have jumped in recent months, he said, like some brands of white matt paint rising almost 15% for a 10-litre pot, from about £35 to £40. “It’s putting a huge strain on my business,” he added, eating into earnings “to a point that maybe I’d be better off claiming benefits”.
Living in Abergele, north Wales, means Mercer drives to jobs. This month he’s been commuting about 100 miles a day to Porthmadog. From spending about £40 a week on fuel in June last year, Mercer is now often paying £90 a week.
Mercer can feel the impact. “We stopped using the oven the moment they hiked the [energy] price up,” he said. “All the food we bought for the oven” – things such as frozen potatoes and yorkshire puddings from Iceland – “we’re thinking of giving it to the food bank as we just can’t afford it”.
Stretched finances have even forced Mercer to put his wedding plans on hold. The couple are cutting back in all sorts of ways. “We had this talk yesterday, I said: ‘We’re gonna have to limit a lot more.’ She joked: ‘Well, I’m a nurse, I need my prosecco after the end of a long shift.’”
Mercer feels abandoned by politicians. Government inaction means “the UK is turning into a cruel place to live”, he said. And Mercer feels Labour offers a weak alternative. “They’re supposed to be the party of workers, but they’ve picked up too many bad habits from the Conservatives.”
‘It’s swallowing our money’
Charlotte Armstrong, 47, frontline support worker in Ipswich, Suffolk
Over winter, returning from her frontline support job in Ipswich, Charlotte Armstrong would wrap herself in sometimes four or five layers. “The warmest clothes I possibly can, dressing gown, everything,” said Armstrong. “Even if we’re sitting eating our dinner, we’ll have blankets on us.”
Armstrong’s private rental home was cold and expensive to heat – windows mostly single-glazed, chimneys unblocked, low energy rating – even before April’s energy price cap hike. The 47-year-old’s electricity rates are climbing 41% from 20.52p to 28.99p a kilowatt hour, her bills show, with gas rates rocketing 85% from 3.99p to 7.37p a kWh.
With higher standing rate charges for both, Armstrong’s supplier estimates she’ll pay £1,030.99 more a year. “It’s swallowing our money,” she said. “It’s one of the hardest periods of my life … How do you allocate for that when you’re living close to the bone anyway?”
At work, Armstrong often refers families to food banks. “We’re literally in the same place, I feel like we’re all being levelled, pushed down,” she said. “We’re being oppressed economically.” Armstrong bought a plug-in heater to cut gas usage. It follows her room to room.
“It makes me feel really angry,” she said. Armstrong urged Sunak to increase the minimum wage, boost universal credit and take on private-sector landlords. She added: “They know exactly what’s going on, but they just don’t care.”
‘My money doesn’t last the month’
Sandy Cameron, 52, living in a trailer in Berkshire
Sandy Cameron gets her gas a little differently from most people – living in a trailer in Berkshire with her two children, 18 and 23, she’s off-grid, and instead buys red canisters to power her home’s boiler and gas hob.
In recent months, canister costs have surged 45% from £107 in May 2021 to £155 in March 2022 for 47kg of propane.
“My money doesn’t last the month,” said the 52-year-old, who works in the agriculture sector. “It’s deflating, I’m not a materialistic person but there’s no money left to do anything.”
The family is cutting back to adapt. For Easter, they ate toast for breakfast and rice with broccoli and cauliflower for lunch. “It was nice, but in previous years I’ve had a vegetarian nut roast for myself – with stuffing and roast potatoes – and bought chicken for my sons.” An August getaway with her partner was cancelled.
“It’s the little things,” Cameron said. She’s stopped attending £12 yoga classes. “My cat Pumpkin’s the only one not affected, she’s such a fussy eater.” The cat still gets luxury-branded food – but Cameron has noticed that cat-food prices have risen 7.5% from £3.49 to £3.75. “Pumpkin’s going to have to do a little bit of hunting,” she joked.
For Cameron, reading about the scale of energy company salaries – the BP chief executive’s pay climbed to nearly £4.5m in 2021 – angers her. “They’re greedy money-grubbing companies, they don’t need that much money,” she said. “Especially when customers are genuinely freezing.”