'I’m £15,000 in debt on my energy bills and it’s terrifying': Over 8 million living in fuel poverty

ITV News Social Affairs Correspondent Sarah Corker reports on how soaring energy bills have plunged many people deeper into poverty

Old, decaying and expensive to heat—the UK has some of the most poorly insulated houses in Western Europe.

As temperatures drop and energy bills continue to soar this winter, pensioners like Geraldine O’Connor, from Sheffield, are being plunged deeper into fuel poverty.

"I owe my energy company £15,000 to £16,000. There’s no way I can pay it. It’s impossible," she said.

The 66-year-old suffers from severe epilepsy. Her disability benefits and the state pension are no longer enough to survive on.

She lives in fear of the debt collectors returning to her door, who she says "frightened the life out of me".

"I literally hibernate in winter and just stay in bed. I can’t afford to shower more than once a week, and never use the oven," she said.

"I’m terrified about the winter and feel completely powerless. I’m living day-by-day and hoping I survive. It’s been like this for years and is getting worse."

Ms O’Connor claims her energy provider has done very little to help her manage her bills despite her disabilities.

Geraldine O'Connor told ITV News she owes her energy supplier between £15,000 and £16,000 in the face of rising household bills

"They are greedy pigs who will run rough shod over the most vulnerable," she said.

New figures from charity National Energy Action show that the number of households in fuel poverty will increase from last October's total of 4.5 million to 8.4 million.

Of that number, 3.6 million are people living with a disability.

Yorkshire has the highest rate of fuel poverty of any UK region, with 17.5% of households unable to afford to heat their homes to temperatures to keep warm and healthy.

The government made a legal commitment that by the end of this decade all fuel poor homes in England would be upgraded and brought up to a reasonable standard of energy efficiency.

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But at the current rate of change that target will be missed by a staggering 150 years, according to analysis shared exclusively with ITV News by charity National Energy Action.

For the poorest families who disproportionately live in the worst of these properties the financial consequences can be devastating.

Analysis for ITV News shows that those living in homes with the worst energy efficiency ratings, known as band E, F and G, will face average annual bills of more than £4,400 from April just to stay warm.

That’s an extra £1,400 every year compared to a typical household.

The war in Ukraine and other global factors have seen energy bills more than double in 18 months.

Ahead of Fuel Poverty Awareness Day on Friday, December 2, Adam Scorer, chief executive of National Energy Action, warned of "an epidemic of unheated homes causing ill-health and avoidable death".

"Even with spiralling energy costs and recent announcements by the UK government, we have not seen anywhere near the step change needed to consign cold, damp unhealthy homes to history," he said.

Campaign groups have accused the government of being complacent about energy use for a very long time.

Retro-fitting a home to make it warmer and energy efficient can be very expensive. It can cost on average £18,000 per household depending on the level of works needed.

Last month, the government announced an additional £1 billion to help households with the worst energy ratings to insulate their properties. The money builds on an existing scheme.

A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told ITV News they "do not recognise these figures", adding the government has "made good progress improving households’ energy efficiency".

"To help us go even further, last month we announced £6 billion of extra funding to improve energy efficiency and an ECO+ scheme that will deliver measures to hundreds of thousands of homes," they added.