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‘I can’t afford to heat my son’s room’: the people struggling to access UK energy support

The government has promised every household £400 to help pay their energy bills this winter, under a scheme which runs for six months from 1 October. The money is automatically credited to those paying by direct debit, but for traditional prepayment meters it’s more complicated. Each household has to wait for a £66 monthly voucher in the post, which can then be used to claim money off when topping up at the Post Office or shops with PayPoint.

However, weeks after the scheme launched, hundreds of thousands of families have not yet redeemed their vouchers, meaning support worth £80m is still unclaimed. Some families may not have claimed the help, but many say their vouchers just have not been sent out.

Here we talk to four people who have struggled to access the government scheme.

Katie, London

Related: UK government’s £400 energy bill support going unclaimed

High energy prices have left many people with tough choices. When colder weather started this month Katie (not her real name), 47, said the vouchers would have offered a “lifeline” – had they arrived.

She lives in temporary accommodation in a one-bed flat in Southwark, London, with her 12-year-old son, and sleeps on the sofa while he has the bedroom. There is no central heating so they rely on electric heaters. The delay receiving vouchers has made a difficult situation worse.

“I can’t afford to heat my son’s bedroom,” she said earlier this month, six weeks after the scheme began. “I now have mould growing on the bedroom ceiling. It is very expensive heating his room with a portable heater and the vouchers would have been a great help.”

She has been on the phone repeatedly with her energy supplier, although she struggled to juggle waiting on the phone to get through to someone while also working full-time. She said she was “extremely upset” about the way her supplier was treating her.

She finally received her vouchers for October and November on Tuesday, nearly two months after they were supposedly first issued.

Peter, Sunderland

When he bought his one-bed flat in Sunderland nine years ago, Peter, an antiques dealer, decided not to pay to have his prepayment meter removed, given his low energy needs. “I don’t have a TV – I prefer to read,” he said.

However, two months into the government’s energy bills support scheme, he has still not received the support to which he is entitled. He shared correspondence showing a series of complaints to his provider, British Gas, which is owned by FTSE 100 company Centrica. He still has no vouchers six weeks after first complaining.

“It’s just so frustrating to try and get through to them and get anything concrete,” he said. “It’s sending a piece of paper from A to B, and they can’t do it.”

Peter, who is in his 50s and lives alone, said he was annoyed at being forced to chase something most people have received automatically.

A British Gas spokesperson said all October and November vouchers have been sent to customers, and it would investigate Peter’s case.

William Harris, Northampton

Related: Energy bills: thousands of UK households in limbo over £400 support

Despite facing energy costs that have more than doubled in the last year, 73-year-old William Harris from Northampton has not received any vouchers. As his landlord installed a prepayment submetre in each of the eight-self contained flats in his building, Harris does not have a direct contract with an energy supplier. The way the scheme is currently designed means the whole building is entitled to only one set of vouchers for £400.

His landlord has told him that at the end of six months he will “see what he receives and divide [the £400] up accordingly” among the eight households, meaning he would get a fraction of what most households in the UK will receive.

Harris has seen the electricity bills for his studio flat soar from £20 monthly last November to £50 every three weeks and is being seriously affected by the price increase. “Since I turned [the heating on] in mid-October, it’s really eating through,” he says. “I’ve got a very serious heart condition and cannot afford to get ill – it will cause me immense problems. I’m recovering from major heart surgery that kept me hospitalised for three months last year.

“I’ve cut down as much as I can. I don’t use the oven at all now, I’m buying microwave meals because it’s cheaper to do it that way. I wear extra clothing to avoid turning on the heating.”

Harris said he has written to his MP, Citizens Advice and his local authority, but no one has been able to give him a concrete answer. “I have no idea how vouchers are going to reach people in my position. It’s very frustrating. I understand why energy prices are going up, I have a problem with how the scheme is being administered among HMO [house in multiple occupation] tenants.”