A Derry councillor has expressed concerns that vulnerable people with gas top-up cards are being forced to make unnecessary trips to the shop because there is no remote top-up option.
Firmus customers in the North with top-up PAYG cards are unable to pay for their gas online or over the phone.
Independent Councillor for the Moor area Gary Donnelly said it is leading to a lot of ‘unnecessary trips’ to the shop.
This can be particularly dangerous for customers who have underlying conditions and are most at risk, he said.
In addition, some people do not have family support or a network of friends to assist, particularly at this time when the entire country has been directed to social distance or self-isolate.
Cllr Donnelly commented: “I know of an incident recently where somebody went to put £40 for gas and when they got back home the card wasn’t working.
“They were going back and forth with Firmus and they told them to clean down the power point.”
The individual ended up having to purchase a new card which necessitated another trip to the shop, then register it on the meter before going back to the shop to re-purchase gas.
Firmus instructed the individual to send the card to its head office which would then be returned with a code to be activated at a shop.
Cllr Donnelly added: “That’s a number of trips for somebody who is vulnerable, and not only that, what if they didn’t have any money once they put the £40 in.”
In response to concerns raised, Firmus acknowledged that it does not offer PAYG customers the choice of topping up remotely.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the company advised customers to find a ‘top up buddy’ or seek support from trusted neighbours, friends and family.
A company spokesperson said: “Many customers choose PAYG when gas is installed over the direct debit option. It is the preferred payment method for many customers as they feel it allows them greater control over budget planning.
“In Northern Ireland, credit can only be added to a PAYG gas meter by topping up cards at PayPoint outlets and transferring the top up by inserting the cards into the meters. PAYG gas meters in Northern Ireland do not have the functionality to top up remotely or via an online facility.
“We urge people to find a top up buddy or make a list of trusted neighbours, friends and family who live nearby, and might be able to top up cards if people cannot leave their homes.”
Switching to a credit meter at this time is not possible as registered installers are not working during the coronavirus pandemic.
The spokesperson explained: “Many neighbourhoods and communities have volunteer groups mobilising to help those who are most vulnerable with groceries, prescriptions and other essential items during this COVID-19 pandemic and we are grateful for their ongoing support at this time. If you need community support you can call the COVID freephone community helpline 0808 802 0020 between 9am and 5pm seven days a week.
“It is not possible to switch a PAYG meter to a credit meter at this time. This is because switching from a PAYG to a credit meter requires a new gas meter to be fitted along with access by a Gas Safe Registered Installer into the customer’s home to purge and relight all gas appliances.
“This is currently deemed non-essential work in line with government guidance. Regular updates for customers as the situation develops can be found on our website at www.firmusenergy.co.uk/home/help-advice/network/covid-19/covid-19-help-and-advice as well as our social channels.”
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