Many families in Northern Ireland face "destitution" this winter unless solutions are found to address the ongoing cost of living crisis.
That's the stark warning from the head of a leading charity as it emerged over 76% of households here are expected to be in fuel poverty by the start of next year.
Two-thirds of all UK households will be trapped in fuel poverty by January with planned government support leaving even middle-income households struggling to pay their bills.
Read more: Majority of NI households could face fuel poverty by 2023
According to research by the University of York, the region hardest hit will be Northern Ireland with 76.3% of families battling to make ends meet, followed by Scotland at 72.8%, the West Midlands (70.9%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (70.6%).
The study shows 18 million families, the equivalent of 45 million people, will be left trying to make ends meet after further predicted rises in the energy price cap in October and January.
An estimated 86.4% of pensioner couples are expected to fall into fuel poverty, traditionally defined as when energy costs exceed 10% of a household’s net income, and 90.4% of lone parents with two or more children.
The figures come after inflation soared to a 40-year high of 10.1%, piling more pain on NI households as the costs of food, energy and fuel continue to rise.
Kevin Higgins, Advice NI Head of Policy, has warned that many families in Northern Ireland face "destitution" if solutions are not put in place to address the cost of living crisis.
"We have to get real and get into solution mode - and get those solutions implemented and delivered," he said, adding that "otherwise, destitution and worse will follow."
"We've got to the stage now where the support that's being provided is inadequate. People are really struggling to cope out there so we need to get serious about this and into big solution mode," Mr Higgins .
"People have just about been getting by but this cost of living crisis is just pushing them over the edge. For many, this has been a battle for this last decade or more and those are the people we're most worried about how they're going to make it through the months to come," he said.
"We've got paralysis in the UK government with the Tory leadership and the collapse of Stormont. It's a time of great need but we're lacking in leadership," warned Mr Higgins.
Agreement has not yet been reached on how to deliver a £400 energy bill discount in Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Executive.
Meetings have taken place between Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Stormont's Economy and Communities Ministers, Gordon Lyons and Deirdre Hargey.
Instead a new taskforce to find a solution was announced to explore how NI households can receive the discount this autumn, which is being rolled out across the rest of the UK in October.
Stormont has been in limbo since February when the DUP withdrew its First Minister from the Executive in protest over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
East Belfast UUP MLA and communities spokesperson Andy Allen said many households here are beyond crisis point and that with each passing day, more and more people are coming to harm.
“Whilst unacceptable, it nevertheless comes as no surprise that Northern Ireland has the highest number of households impacted by the worsening cost of living crisis," he told Belfast Live.
“Other devolved regions are able to deliver new measures, but Northern Ireland - which has only had a functioning government in two of the last five years, both of which were inhibited by the pandemic - finds itself playing catch-up with no Executive, budget or means to address the daily struggles our people face.
“This is clearly not good enough and is a situation that needs to be urgently rectified. While poverty strategies, yet to be approved by an Executive, lie gathering dust on shelves, households across Northern Ireland are being pushed beyond the brink.
“The UK government has brought forward some measures, however, there is a need for further short, medium and long-term intervention. This must be collaborative and come from local authorities, the NI Executive and Westminster.”
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the projections that over two-thirds of households could be in fuel poverty by January as “a glaring indictment” of free market energy provision.
Mr Carroll said the statistics show that energy companies are “profiting off of people’s misery”.
“Private energy providers have consistently raised their prices and increased their profits without hinderance,” he said.
“Stormont ministers and their counterparts in Westminster have utterly failed to protect people from rising energy costs by implementing price controls. Instead, they are considering giving further handouts to the very companies that are driving people into poverty.
“When highly paid Ministers are enjoying their winter break, people will be freezing in their homes. The current crisis proves that it is absolute nonsensical for energy provision to be in private hands.
“Energy provision should be nationalised so that it serves the interests of the majority, rather than those of a few private profiteers.”
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