Growing calls for more support as Kiwis struggle to keep warm in winter

"We either pay in increased hospitalisations and GP visits or we try and help people stay healthy."
"We either pay in increased hospitalisations and GP visits or we try and help people stay healthy." Photo credit: Getty Images

By Louise Ternouth for RNZ 

New Zealand is known for its cold homes, and as winter bites, calls are growing for more support for those who cannot keep warm.

Charities say more and more people are struggling to pay their power bills, and the winter energy payment and cost of living payment are falling short.

Many people are bracing for their next power bill, some still recovering from last month's.

"I know for a number of people last month's power bill was bigger than they expected, and they are now expecting something bigger this month. Things seem to have multiplied quicker than than in previous years," said chair of the Manawatū Home Budgeting Service Les Boyd.  

Many people living alone were asking for help but Boyd said there was another storm brewing, families yet to come forward.

Low user plans being scrapped, costs going up and more heaters on with the cold weather were all behind hefty bills.

The first cost of living payment of about $116 will be rolled out at the start of August, with another in September and October.

Boyd said it should have been earlier.

"It really needed to, even if it came in at the end of June, it would be much more useful because I think it's now where people are starting to hit the wall."

For some people the winter energy payment may apply, which is about $127 a month for a couple with dependent children.

But a University of Otago study showed heating one Wellington child's bedroom for a month would eat through almost half the payment.

"So unfortunately what that probably means is that they could be trying to save money, but then ending up with worse respiratory health because of that. We either pay in increased hospitalisations and GP visits or we try and help people stay healthy," researcher Dr Caroline Shorter said.

She said energy poverty was a significant factor in the country's winter mortality rates.

The colder months are behind about 1600 deaths and more than 7000 hospitalisations a year.

Shorter said the winter energy payment should be scaled for how many children live in a household.

"We know that first 1000 days of a child's life is a really important time point. We should be looking to subsidise babies in their first year. If you fixed all the damp and mouldy housing ... you could reduce the hospitalisations for under-two-year-olds by almost 20 percent."

More research from the University of Otago found tertiary students were more than twice as likely than the general population to live in damp, mouldy rental housing.

Dr Kimberly O'Sullivan said students were feeling the effects of inadequate housing.

"Students are renting some of the worst rental properties available; once it's damp and it's mouldy it's really hard to fix that. Somebody said that they had gone on to antidepressants and actually one of the main things that was causing them stress and anxiety was living in a cold environment."

Warm homes needed for Covid-19 recovery

O'Sullivan said isolating and recovering from Covid-19 at home was extremely difficult without heating and ventilation.

"It is really important to keep your home warm when you are spending greater amounts of time at home and also for people who are trying to recover from a respiratory illness, we know that being warm and dry is really important for our health during those times."

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment released a definition of energy hardship and wellbeing this month, almost two years after they first began working on a definition.

National's energy spokesperson Stuart Smith said that was not an acceptable timeframe.

"Too little too late."

He said the 23-word response had been produced "as a reaction to the pressure we put on them with written questions".

In a written statement, Minister of Energy Megan Woods said the government had been tackling energy poverty through their Support for Energy Education programme and Warmer Kiwi Homes programme. She said work being done by the Energy Hardship panel was progressing.

Woods went on to say the Winter Energy Payment supports more than one million New Zealanders alongside increases to benefits, superannuation and the minimum wage, and the temporary cost of living package will support another 2.1 million low-middle income earners.