By mid-January much of the UK was snow-bound. Occasionally the temperature rose slightly, but then plummeted, turning the new formed slush into ice. Mobile phone masts stopped operating. Pavements became skating rinks, and broken arms and legs sent large numbers to hospital.
Many people were unable to heat their homes. Pensioners were particularly at risk, but social workers and relatives tried hard to make sure that at least one room was kept at a reasonable temperature.
People most at risk were those whose fuel meter was a pre-payment meter activated by a card or key. The price of the energy units was higher than average, especially if a customer was repaying a debt to the energy supplier.
There was however little margin of error. If the money on a card or key ran out, a customer could use an emergency credit, but this was sometimes as low as £7. After this, the gas or electricity supply was automatically cut off.
This arrangement was seen by the energy companies as a way of encouraging clients to take on full responsibility, both for their energy supplies and outstanding bills.
Living some distance from a shop with a top-up facility often proved a considerable problem. Single mothers had to take children with them, or find a babysitter.
What was not foreseen was the effect of a harsh and lengthy winter on these, the most vulnerable of customers. As snow increased, it became more difficult for those with pre-payment meters to reach shops offering top-up facilities for their meters’ keys or cards.
When in early March, last warmth began to replace sub-zero temperatures, neighbours began to notice that homes of some young families showed no signs of life.
People contacted the police and social services, but neither could guarantee a quick response. Both were at breaking point.
Eventually, access was made to these silent houses, but tragedy frequently greeted them. It was not uncommon to find that each member of a family had died from the effects of extreme cold.
In every case, the meter’s emergency supply of gas or electricity had been used up. Yet in one house money had been set aside in envelopes marked “Gas” or “Electricity”. Why a top-up had not been obtained was not clear, until in one household a note was found which read, “Can’t walk as far as the shop.”
When interviewed a Government miniser said “nobody could possibly have foreseen that such a hard winter would bring so many deaths – could they ?”
A Government Minister lamented the tragic of so many deaths, but was quick to praise the energy companies’ efforts to encourage long term financial responsibility among customers through the use of top-up meters.
He maintained that people’s difficulty in finding place to top-up their cards and key facilities was unique, “a true one-off”. He was sure the energy companies would now review their policies and practice. When interviewed he said, “nobody could possibly have foreseen that such a hard winter would bring so many deaths - could they ?”