'Covid and energy price crises have been botched'

Centrica has reignited controversy over high energy bills by announcing a 44% increase in first half

Energy bills are set to rise considerably this year - Credit: PA

'We’re going to end up in a situation where we don’t have any capacity in our hospitals.' 

This is not just my view - these are the words of Dr Paul Johnson, head of Devon NHS Clinical Commissioning Group. 

Already, Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital has declared a critical incident: too many staff are unwell or isolating for Covid. And the South West’s ambulance services are taking 74 minutes on average to reach a Category 2 call - 20 minutes longer than in the next worst region in England. (This is a call for ‘a serious condition, such as stroke or chest pain, which may require rapid assessment and/or urgent transport’.)

Boris Johnson has allowed this crisis to develop in order to prevent ‘further restrictions’ being imposed. But people not being able to get an urgent ambulance or treatment in time, not being able to visit sick loved ones in hospital (which is being mooted as a way of coping with the pressure) or their relatives in care homes, are far worse restrictions than having to wear a mask - which Simon Jupp, MP for East Devon, could not bring himself to vote for. 

The truth is, our weak prime minister has botched this Covid crisis, like he botched the previous three, because he is scared of the backbench extremists who think that denying the NHS disaster will make it go away.

These Tories claim to be concerned about the local economy. However, the government’s policy of leaving it to the public to make decisions has left Devon’s hospitality businesses with huge losses over the Christmas and New Year period. A £6,000 grant is small comfort when you’ve lost £10,000 each and every week, which I gather is not untypical.

Local businesses are also worrying about skyrocketing energy bills, and every household should be too. 
I’ve been alarmed by the letters British Gas have been sending me, inviting me to switch to a new fixed-rate tariff, which turns out to be 138 per cent higher (yes, you read that right) than my current rate and 65 per cent higher than their standard variable rate (on to which I will be switched if I do nothing).

Their first letter misleadingly described the new fixed rate as their ‘cheapest’, and the second warns that the standard variable rate may rise so that it will no longer be cheaper.

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The truth is that from April 1, variable rates are expected to rise (under the price cap rules) by 51 per cent. This is itself an increase which Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis describes as ‘sickening’. 

But note that British Gas are still trying to lure customers into taking on even more expensive fixes. 
How many other suppliers are following suit? Lewis advises against signing up for fixed rates with more than a 40 per cent increase, and says that ‘Most should still DO NOTHING and stick on the price cap’, i.e. variable rates. (Check his site for more information including about help paying your bills - and note that you won’t just be cut off if you can’t afford the increases).

The truth is that many consumers, especially in Devon where average wages are low, just won’t be able to afford these rises. Energy suppliers, charities and opposition parties are urging the government to step in. They could subsidise consumer prices, as Norway is doing, perhaps through a windfall tax on energy producers (who are making massive profits). They could remove VAT from energy bills.

In the end, the government will have to act, but if Johnson and Rishi Sunak are left to their own devices, the support for consumers will probably be too little and too late. 

This is the moment when MPs and councillors should be speaking up loud and clear, forcing the government to listen. 

They should also demand an investigation into the communications which some energy firms are sending their customers.