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Coronavirus sparks fears Victorians will go without heating this winter

By Sarah Jane Bell, Thursday March 26, 2020 - 15:24 EDT
Audience submitted image
Vinnies has called for a moratorium on utility disconnections during the pandemic. - Audience submitted

Community welfare groups in Victoria fear families will go without vital heating and electricity this winter amid the fallout of the coronavirus emergency.

A number of organisations, including the St Vincent De Paul Society and Uniting, have called on state and federal governments to provide bill relief.

Vinnies policy and research manager Gavin Dufty said with more people staying at home, energy bills were likely to increase substantially.

"In the space of the utilities — gas, electricity and water — we would like a moratorium on disconnections at this time, and for the governments to provide one-off crisis payments across the duration [of the pandemic]," he said.

"People will need additional support for their bills, and they'll need it for the duration of the time that government, whether state or federal, are making requirements for people to self-isolate."

'How can they sustain their bills?'

Uniting senior manager Cathryn Ryan said the organisation had seen an increase in the number of people in need of bill support.

"Families will find it difficult, especially the casual workforce that has been put off just recently, to be able to think about how they can sustain their bills moving into the winter months."

Ms Ryan said with the impact of coronavirus on jobs and daily life, it meant more people would be at home, with less money coming in to support them being there.

"It will be [interesting] to see how it goes over the next couple of months, because Ballarat [for example] is coming into the colder time now — what will the impact be for those families?"

People would need long-term financial support from the Victorian Government, she said.

Calls for electricity rebate

Earlier this week, the Queensland Government announced a $300 million relief package for households, including a $200 rebate on power and water charges on top of a $50 asset dividend.

Victoria's Minister for Energy, Lily D'Ambrosio, has been contacted for comment.

Mr Dufty said that as a first step, families that had seen a sudden loss in income would need guidance accessing Centrelink payments.

He said the Victorian Government needed to be open about what concessions were available for people with a healthcare or pension card.

"The state should be promoting to households that [there are] supports that you might not even know about but you are entitled to them now," he said.

"We're calling on the State Government to lift up its voice, to tell people if you've lost your job and are getting unemployment benefits with a health or pension card, there are supports."

Energy company assistance

The Australian Energy Council said the coronavirus crisis required the entire sector to respond.

Chief executive Sarah McNamara said the council would work with networks and governments to ensure emergency relief payments and other concessions were available.

"They are existing measures; every retailer has a detailed hardship plan in place already, but what we want to do is remind customers these plans are in place.

"We know some people are going to be doing it tough."

Ms McNamara said she also expected the challenges to escalate over winter.

"Certainly we're in lots of discussions at the moment as to how we're going to help customers through the winter months; we know we're likely to see a real increase in customer hardship numbers."

Jon Briskin, the head of retail at Origin Energy, said the company understood it was a difficult time.

"For customers who are having difficulty paying their electricity or gas bills, they can easily request bill extensions of up to five weeks online," he said.


© ABC 2020

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