LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s energy market regulator Ofgem is consulting on plans to strengthen support measures being offered during the coronavirus pandemic to customers struggling to pay their energy bills, it said on Monday.

In March, energy suppliers agreed emergency measures to support vulnerable customers through COVID-19, including those on prepayment meters facing difficulties topping up their meters while self-isolating or in financial distress.

Ofgem said it is proposing stronger protection for prepayment customers, who are more likely to be in vulnerable circumstances, as a permanent requirement.

Under these proposals, suppliers would have to offer emergency and credit, for example when top-up points are closed, to all prepayment customers, and offer additional credit for consumers in vulnerable circumstances while they are working out alternative arrangements to pay.

This would include customers who temporarily cannot afford to top up their meters or get to their local shop to top up because of a mobility issue or due to self-isolation, Ofgem said.

“These permanent protections will reduce the number of prepayment customers temporarily going without energy because they cannot afford to top up,” said Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem.

Around 4 million households use prepayment meters and around one in seven self-disconnected their supply in the last 12 months. The regulator said it has been concerned about the increasing numbers of prepayment customers who go without energy after running out of credit on their meter since before COVID-19.

Ofgem said it is also proposing to strengthen protections so that suppliers provide extra support to help customers struggling to pay their energy bills from this winter.

Subject to the consultation, the changes would be in place by the end of this year.

(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Hugh Lawson)