The number of elderly and vulnerable people applying to a charity for help with fuel bills has increased almost four-fold since the start of the energy crisis.

Wiltshire Safe and Warm says its free advice line rings constantly with people facing desperate choices over how to manage their bills.

Project officer Shareen Elnagy said: “We’ve experienced a huge surge in enquires relating to rising energy costs, heating issues and financial assistance available.

"Within the first couple of months of the Surviving Winter appeal running, we’ve received almost four times the number of applications in comparison to last year.

“It feels like we are in quite desperate times at the moment, the struggle is just becoming more apparent and there are more things to worry about.”

She said a ‘perfect storm’ of rising energy prices and increased household costs, coupled with the fact many older and vulnerable people are spending more time indoors because of the Omicron Covid wave, means more people are struggling to cope with bills.

With 28 energy companies so far going out of business, families on cheap fixed tariffs whose supplier has gone bankrupt have been moved to bigger firms where they are suddenly on the standard variable rate, she said.

“People are scared but our general advice is to stay put because no one knows what is going to happen. There are still suppliers who are getting tipped closer to the edge.”

The Wiltshire Community Foundation’s annual fundraising appeal, set up in response to the average 300 cold-related deaths each year in the county, works with Wiltshire Warm and Safe.

It also works with Swindon and Wiltshire Citizens Advice and Age UK, who distribute £200 grants to help with fuel bills as well as provide energy-saving or benefits advice to older and vulnerable people in fuel poverty.

Last year the community foundation's appeal raised £142,000 and helped more than 1,200 people.

Wiltshire Warm and Safe, which is run by the Centre For Sustainable Energy, has a team of expert advisors who contact people at risk referred by charities, care and health workers.

As well as providing energy grants, the charity offers help with repairing boilers and refers applicants to schemes offering insulation and other energy-saving improvement.

Wiltshire Citizens Advice is using community foundation funding to help increase the hours of specialist advisors to help people in debt apply for other benefits they could be entitled to, including Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit.

Chief executive Suzanne Wigmore said her advisors have seen a steep rise in PIP applicants.

“A lot of people had rolled claims over or hadn’t been seeking to apply or reapply during the pandemic so for PIP we have seen an upturn and that’s our single biggest issue,” she said.

“Personal Independence Payment is incredibly difficult to apply for and the forms are ridiculously long. The people who are claiming for it often need extra support so that is why it has become our number one issue.

"The decision-making time is quite long so we are also supporting a lot of people while they are waiting.”

Both groups fear the lifting of the cap on energy bills in April, which could see bills rise by another £600 a year, and a rise in National insurance payments, will plunge more people into poverty.

Independent think tank the Resolution Foundation predicts low-income families will be hit hardest by the rise because the proportion of their income eaten up by fuel bills will rise from 8.5 per cent to 12 per cent.

“People are fearful about whether their bills are going to triple or double, there’s a lot of media about energy costs and even for people who weren’t struggling before there’s suddenly a lot of worry,” said Miss Elnagy.

Wiltshire Community Foundation joint chief executive Fiona Oliver said the higher fuels bills is impacting people of all ages and the number of households being plunged into poverty is likely to increase pressure on all charities.

“Our Surviving Winter partners are doing an amazing job but they are seeing referrals from every direction," she said.

"They have told us they are signposting more and more people to foodbanks because they just don’t have enough money left over to feed themselves or their families.

“We will be relying on the generosity of our wonderful donors even more this year, not just with Surviving Winter but all of our work funding the incredible grass roots groups who support the disadvantaged in their communities.”

To find out more about the community foundation’s work, go to

Contact Wiltshire Warm and Safe from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday on 0800 0385722.