The cost of living, and the cost of delay: why deeper change is needed now

Millions of people will breathe a sigh of relief hearing the news that energy prices are to be capped at £2,500 a year for the next two years. But it is only a short-term reassurance to those who were barely managing, worried about the prospect of facing much higher bills but not able to pay new costs already incurred earlier this year. It won’t address the concerns of people who were already struggling and were terrified of the prospects of a winter living in a cold house. It won’t address the worries of people as they see the increase in bills eat away at any savings they have managed to make. Many households have already seen rises of 80% plus to their bills, rises that were not adequately addressed at the time. There is a danger that those who  were struggling with the price rises that have already occurred this year will end up being forgotten as the current price levels become the ‘new normal’.

We must acknowledge that the damage to our health, anticipated by many, has now already been done. The daily warnings on the news of forthcoming rises to bills, the inaction of government because of the change in leadership, and then the ‘debates’ involving prominent ex-politicians and ex-newspaper editors telling people to put a jumper on and turn the heating down have all already caused a great deal of damage. Fear about paying bills isn’t something that happens when the bill arrives, it happens in the anticipation of their arrival  and the worry that you won’t be able to pay it. The debts that could potentially mean losing your home, not being able to feed your children, and the row you’ll probably have with your partner about what you give up next to make slim savings. Households are tense, and we know all to well the impact a household filled with tension and conflict has on children’s health outcomes. We must, of course, also think about those parents too and the strain this will have on them.

The fact that there was a question mark over whether the government should even help reinforced the message to people who were already disadvantaged: that the people who influence and make decisions neither understand nor care about them.

The longer that fear was allowed to linger, the greater the damage to us. Chronic stress and worry are associated with a reduced immune system[1] and longer recovery times from illness. This itself puts  long term health at risk, even before we consider the effects of actually experiencing the traumatic event itself. Furthermore, the fact that there was a question mark that emerged during the conservative leadership contest over whether the government should help, or whether ‘handouts’ should end, will have exacerbated the problem. This reinforced the message to people who were already disadvantaged that the people who influence and make decisions neither understand or care about them. It exacerbated feelings of alienation, apathy and despair many communities already had. It reinforced a sense of lacking belonging, and loneliness which each contribute to physical and mental health problems. Many have also warned that these feelings can be co-related to increased instances of suicide, too. (Samaritans offers support 24/7 to anyone who is struggling – call 116 123 for free).   

This is why it is so important we create a kinder politics and society where people feel like they belong and are valued, and encourage a culture within our politics of listening to people.

This is why it is so important we create a kinder politics and society where people feel like they belong and are valued. The debates over energy prices and cost of living have not been helpful in this regard. Instead of lecturing people to ‘put a jumper on’, we need to encourage a culture within our politics of listening to people, allowing their fears and perspectives to be understood.

That’s also why we do not want this new energy price freeze to be regarded as a box ticked or problem solved when it self-evidently isn’t. The cost-of-living crisis is also about rising food prices, stagnant or declining wages that are failing to keep pace with the cost of essentials, and entrenched poverty that remains endemic. These are key causes of poor mental health which unnecessarily create psychosocially unhealthy living circumstances for people,adding more pressure on our already stretched public services. We will be campaigning and working with others, pushing to work with the Welsh and UK government to raise awareness of the hidden costs of the social determinants of mental health. But we also intend to listen and hear the worries of people, and challenge the negative stereotypes and ways in which their concerns are dismissed by those who haven’t experienced a simple truth –  wearing a thicker jumper really isn’t going to protect you from a harsh winter.

[1] Seiler, A., Fagundes, C.P., Christian, L.M. (2020). The Impact of Everyday Stressors on the Immune System and Health. In: Choukèr, A. (eds) Stress Challenges and Immunity in Space. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-16996-1_6 The Impact of Everyday Stressors on the Immune System and Health | SpringerLink