Following an unseasonably warm few weeks, winter has finally arrived. But as the temperature drops many of us won't be reaching for the thermostat.
One in four households won't be switching their heating on this week as they worry about rising energy bills, says moneysupermarket.com, which has conducted a survey of 13,700 people.
Of those surveyed, 36% have switched their heating on in the past week but 17% are waiting until it gets colder, and a worrying 6% said they couldn't afford to heat their homes. This backs up a government report that states fuel poverty is on the rise.
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Thousands of people are dying each year from illnesses linked to fuel poverty, says the report by Professor John Hills, director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.
There are 27,000 extra deaths in winter compared to the rest of the year, according to the Office for National Statistics. This figure is one of the worst in Europe and the Hills report studied concluded that of those deaths 2,700 are the direct result of health conditions, such as respiratory infections or cardiovascular problems, linked to fuel poverty.
How to cut your winter energy bill
"It's a very serious problem. There are people dying, maybe more people dying each year than die on the roads," says Professor Hills. "It's a problem of hardship for low-income families who are having to pay out more when they've got hard-to-heat houses."
Audrey Gallacher, director of energy at Consumer Focus, adds: "Many of our poorest pensioners, families and disabled people, put their health at risk by having to choose between heating their homes or putting food on the table this winter. This is one of the most pressing and neglected concerns facing the government's energy strategy."
What you can do
There are three main causes of fuel poverty: poor energy efficiency, high fuel prices and low incomes. While there is little you can do about the last one anyone can take steps to tackle the first two.
If you are on a low income you may be eligible for a cold weather payment to help you with your fuel costs when temperatures really drop. Pensioners will get their usual Winter Fuel Payment and if you receive the guarantee part of Pension Credit you may be eligible to get £120 off your bills this winter. You can find out more about what benefits you may be entitled to at www.adviceguide.org.uk.
Energy suppliers are also obliged to offer free or reduced deals on home insulation to people who are considered 'high risk' in terms of fuel poverty. Also check out the government's Warm Front Scheme that helps low-income families insulate their homes – but be quick because this scheme will end next year.
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Finally, make sure you are on the cheapest possible energy tariff. A few minutes spent shopping around could save you a fortune. "Moving from a standard tariff to the best fixed deal would save 15% on the cost of bills, which goes someway to limit the impact of the price hikes," says Scott Byrom, energy manager at moneysupermarket.com.