Sunday 17 December 2017

When will full human cost of Arctic weather be known?

Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

The flowers and trees will be in full bloom -- and we will have moved on to complaining about summer showers -- by the time the full human cost of the new year's Arctic weather is known.

The time lag in getting official statistics on the death toll while the country was snowbound means that we are in danger of wasting a valuable opportunity to tackle the problem of people dying due to lack of heat.

We know that up to 2,000 deaths occur here every winter because people who may have respiratory and heart complaints suffer a life-threatening drop in temperature. It's already an entrenched annual health crisis, and the fears are that the casualties will be much higher this year.

Around half the deaths caused by the cold are from strokes and heart attacks. People suffer a thickening of the blood, leaving them with less defences. Others suffer bronchitis, pneumonia or flu.

But many households are only now receiving their electricity or gas bills -- so how far will the concern of the State and energy suppliers extend?

Are they already printing off extra bundles of those chilling letters warning about disconnection for non-payment?

The Department of Social and Family Affairs advises people to go to the community welfare officer in the local health centre. Around €170,000 has been given to people to help pay fuel bills or repair burst pipes already this year.

We asked the ESB and Bord Gais what approach they would be taking. A spokesperson for the former said it was working closely with agencies such as St Vincent de Paul, Age Action Ireland, and the Money and Budgeting Service (MABS) to support people who are in difficulties.

"Customers who face such difficulties are urged to call ESB's contact centre at 1850 372 372 as soon as possible so that a payment resolution can be put in place.

"A significant number of customers, approximately 300,000, are in receipt of the free electricity allowance. This allows eligible customers to avail of 400 units of free electricity per two-monthly bill."

According to Bord Gais it has given €1m to charities to help support people struggling to pay their bills since the cold spell.

It "strives to work with our customers to resolve the problem and disconnection is only undertaken as a last resort. We do encourage anyone in difficulty to contact us straight away on 1850 632 632".

"When customers contact us, we work out a payment plan which would aim to clear any arrears that had built up within six-12 months. It is also working with charities coming to the aid of the needy.

"Once a customer has contacted us and is following the agreed payment plan, disconnection will not arise.

"Unfortunately, arrears build up and when we do not hear from the customer on foot of several attempts to contact them over a six to nine-month period, we are left with no option but to disconnect.

"In many cases the customer agrees to a payment plan and the disconnection is not carried out. If the debt is below a threshold of €250 then the customer will not be disconnected.

"We also encourage customers 66 years and over, or those with special needs, to sign up to the Special Services Register which ensures that a disconnection to supply due to non-payment of arrears will not occur between October and April."

Bord Gais is rolling out free pay-as-you-go meters and in hardship cases customers can avail of pre-payment meters, which can be 'topped up' at local outlets.

Irish Independent

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