More than 3 million low-income UK households cannot afford to heat their homes, according to research, as a “dangerously cold” weather front arrived from the Arctic.
The UK Health Security Agency has issued a cold weather alert recommending vulnerable people warm their homes to at least 18C, wear extra layers and eat hot food to protect themselves from plummeting temperatures.
Ministers also confirmed that people in more than 300 postcode areas in England and Wales would receive cold weather payments in the coming days. The £25 payments are triggered when the average temperature is 0C or less for seven days in a row.
But about 710,000 households will still struggle to pay for warm clothing, heating and food, according to analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).
A fifth of the 2.5 million low-income households were going without food and heating, it estimated. The JRF survey of 4,251 people in the bottom 40% of incomes, which was conducted last month, also found that about 4.3 million had curbed their spending on heating before the cold spell.
More than 7 million households have gone without at least one of the essentials since June, the JRF will say when its full report is released next week.
About 2.4 million households have borrowed money or used credit to afford their bills so far this year. The current cold snap means they face the impossible decision over whether to take on more debt to heat their home to the level recommended by health professionals.
Rachelle Earwaker, a senior economist at JRF, said: “The government must see that families will not be able to get through the winter on the current levels of support.
“For hundreds of thousands of households it is not a choice between putting the heating on or not. Our research shows they cannot afford anything recommended to protect themselves from the effects of plummeting temperatures.
“We are still experiencing historically high inflation and the prices of essentials are still soaring. Energy bills, while capped, are still almost double what they were last winter. Housing shortages, rising rents and mortgage payments are overburdening budgets across the country.
She said the dangerously cold weather was cause for concern. “People are being forced to wager their financial health and whether they can afford more debt, against their wellbeing without sufficient heat, clothing or hot food.”
The basic social security level was “woefully below” the level that would allow people to afford essentials, Earwalker added.
The foundation is urging the government to change universal credit and increase the basic rate of support.
A government spokesperson said: “Our priority will always be to support the most vulnerable. We recognise that people are struggling with rising prices, which is why we are protecting millions of those most in need with at least 1,200 of direct payments and providing households with 400 towards energy costs.
“Our immediate support also includes our energy price guarantee, saving around 900 for a typical household over winter and our household support fund is helping people with essential costs. Meanwhile, the chancellor recently announced a further extensive cost of living package, ensuring those most in need are supported next year as well as this.”
The Met Office has issued a number of weather warnings for snow and ice for parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the east coast and south-west England over the coming days.
Its chief meteorologist, Steve Willington, said: “As an Arctic maritime airmass settles across the UK, temperatures will fall with widespread overnight frosts, severe in places, and daytime temperatures only a few degrees above freezing.
“Showers will turn more wintry with an increasing risk of snow as the week progresses, particularly in coastal areas or over higher ground. There will be widespread frosts with temperatures falling to as low as -10C overnight in isolated spots by the end of the week.”
Age UK advised people to maintain a supply of food and medicine to reduce the number of outdoor trips and torches with spare batteries in case of a power cut.
Homeless people in London will be sheltered after the severe weather emergency protocol was activated for the first time this winter to provide emergency accommodation for rough sleepers.