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Winter is fast approaching and with it a realisation that although we have been settling back to what many consider to be the ‘new normal’ we are not out of the woods yet. 

In fact; the Government has already issued its Autumn and Winter Plan 2021 for tackling the continuing effects of the COVID pandemic. So what does this mean for businesses, will Plan B be enacted if the number of infections continue to increase and is the private rental sector ready for a COVID winter?  

Despite three lockdowns, several vaccines and a dramatic fall in the death rate, Covid-19 refuses to leave us alone. Unfortunately the UK’s vaccination programme is not the world-beater many had hoped.

According to The Financial Times, by the autumn of 2021 the country languished in 22nd place in the world for total doses administered. Simple measures including the wearing of masks, so readily accepted in many other countries, have been casually downgraded. Infections are high but thankfully serious cases are rare. 

As many experts have said, we will have to learn to live with the virus. 

However, the onset of winter poses new challenges. The Academy of Medical Sciences has published a report predicting a collision of health threats which will put intense pressure on the NHS. The return of seasonal influenza combined with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and the indomitable Covid-19 could lead to twice as many deaths as in a normal winter.

People are particularly vulnerable to flu and RSV because one of the results of the 2020 lockdowns was heavily reduced exposure to these viruses, resulting in lower immunity this year. 

While Covid-19 still stalks our homes, schools, offices and shops, the consequences for the health service could be severe.

Is the Private Rental Sector ready for a COVID Winter?

After January’s spike the intensified lockdown produced a sharp fall in infections but since the easing of restrictions the curve has shot up again and appears to have levelled off to somewhere above 30,000 per day. 

With figures like this, going into a COVID winter when respiratory diseases are at their most dangerous is fraught with risk.

What does this mean for the private rented sector? 

With infection rates high and the government relying on its Test, Trace and Isolate policy, the possibility of disruption to people’s working lives remains high. 

In the private rented sector, this presents particular problems. 

Many renters have jobs or roles that, if not zero hours, are vulnerable to the detrimental effects of quarantine: missed days can mean lost pay which in turn can create difficulties in meeting rent obligations. Now that the legal block on evictions has been lifted, private tenants are fully exposed to the consequences of interrupted earnings. 

Working from home has been successful in the past and despite the government’s insistence on getting people back to their offices, in many cases this will be impractical precisely because of the need to self-isolate. Furthermore, not all tenants are living in properties that are conducive to working from home.

If the Government’s Plan B is enacted and it becomes essential for tenants to stay in their homes, other problems surface. 

Unlike homeowners, renters are engaged in a contractual agreement which limits their autonomy in adapting their home to the exigencies of the virus and the weather. Questions of insulation and the efficiency of heating appliances become much more significant if you have to spend the whole day at home.

It also increases the wear and tear on the property which can then impact the outgoing checkout and how both agents and landlords view any perceived or documented change or damage.

What can be done to minimise the effects of a COVID winter? 

Conducting a periodical property review is an important way to help prepare the property, the tenant and the landlord’s budget for the ravages of winter. 

It is essential to check and confirm: 

  • boilers, timers, radiators, thermostats are functioning and have been serviced 
  • window seals are effective, keys for ventilation are present and working
  • pipe lagging are sufficient to prevent burst pipes and leaks
  • draft resistance measures are all in safe and usable condition 
  • outstanding maintenance is being actively managed and urgent issues prioritised

As this needs to be in place long before the winter sets in; an effective way to ensure the property is in habitable condition is carrying out a Fitness for Human Habitation risk assessment.

In the short term, this can give tenants peace of mind that they are facing the potential for a COVID winter with adequate protection and in the long term it prevents disputes over extra costs and disruption of amenities. 

It is in the interest of both parties – tenants for obvious reasons and landlords because, under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1985, they are obliged to repair equipment supplying heating and hot water ‘in a reasonable time’ and potentially within 24 hours, an emergency service that can come at a premium price.

Cost of heating the rental home is spiralling

If bills are included in the rent, then landlords may well seek to amend this provision to compensate for the higher, unforeseeable consumption. If they are not, then the tenant’s costs will rise dramatically. 

This development comes at the worst possible time, when the costs of gas and electricity are soaring across much of the world. In 2020-2021 Europe experienced an unusually cold winter which meant that reserves of gas supplies were significantly eroded. Simultaneously, Asia saw an unprecedented rise in demand. 

The UK has been particularly badly hit because of our reliance on natural gas to heat 85% of homes and generate a third of our electricity. At the same time high winds have become a rarity, limiting the output of a key source of renewable energy

The combined effect has been nearly a 300% increase in the price of wholesale gas, which is already feeding through to the consumer. The prospect of having to heat properties from morning to night for tenants working from home is profoundly unwelcome and potentially threatens the ability of some people, in certain circumstances, not to pay their rent as they will naturally seek to keep food on the table and the property warm.

There are no easy answers here. Heating the home will cost more than ever this winter, which means efficiency is more important than ever.

What can tenants do to help landlords manage the property? 

If you’ve arranged with your landlord to check the performance of all the equipment in the property then make sure you adhere to appointments and let the agent or landlord know early if you need to rearrange. 

You have the right to be informed at least 24 hours before a visit to the property is made, however the landlord has the right to enter the property if there is an emergency such as major water or gas leak.

Further measures you can take can involve keeping doors closed to trap heat in the rooms you’re using, avoid setting your thermostats higher than necessary or turning them up high for short periods as this can cost more in the long run. 

Add temporary draft exclusion measures such as excluders to the bottom of drafty doors and resist the urge to dry clothes on radiators as this can stop the spread of ambient heat as well as cause condensation and excessive moisture to build and mould to proliferate without adequate ventilation.

Even closing curtains or blinds and putting rugs on the floor can make a real difference to insulation and heat retention.

When we’re used to having the energy and heat we want at manageable prices and without interruption, it can be hard to adjust to circumstances like these. But being prepared and acting sensibly will go a long way to seeing you safely through to the spring.

What can suppliers do to help agents and landlords manage the property? 

Plan, plan, plan.

This includes the impacts of either another lockdown but certainly a skill shortage including the potential of a downturn in available office staff, inventory clerks, gas engineers, electricians, maintenance personnel through either self isolation or the impacts of Plan B.

Check with clients as to their own plans which should now be better formed due to our combined experiences, since March 2020. Key access, emergency contact numbers, last minute urgent bookings; all these need to be managed otherwise we risk complaints and action from tenants and the potential for the private rental sector to come to a grinding halt.

Government advice and support for the autumn and winter

As shown within the Government document; advice to support businesses through the autumn and winter period include the Government providing up-to-date Working Safely guidance on how employers can reduce the risks in their workplace. 

Businesses should also consider this guidance in preparing their health and safety risk assessments, put in place suitable mitigations and revisit them regularly.

By law, businesses must not ask or allow employees to come to work if they are required to self-isolate so plans need to include contingencies for when staff who usually work out in the field cannot attend a booked/planned property visit or risk assessment appointment.

In addition, businesses are encouraged by the Government to:

  • ask employees to stay at home if they are feeling unwell.
  • ensure there is an adequate supply of fresh air to indoor work spaces. 
  • businesses should identify any poorly ventilated work or required access spaces, for example by using a CO2 monitor, and take steps to improve fresh air flow in these areas.
  • provide hand sanitiser to enable staff and customers to clean their hands more frequently, and clean surfaces which people touch regularly.
  • display an NHS QR code poster for customers to check in using the NHS COVID-19 app, so they are alerted if there’s an outbreak and can take action to protect others.
  • consider using the NHS COVID Pass.

As also suggested by the Government; encourage safer behaviours and actions that reduce the spread of COVID-19

Is the Private Rental Sector ready for a COVID Winter?

And they also intimate that there will be increased investment in future preventive measures such as improved ventilation in key settings. For example:

  • providing further advice and support to businesses to help businesses check their ventilation levels and introduce Carbon Dioxide (CO2) monitoring where appropriate.
  • conducting further scientific research to assess ventilation levels in a range of business settings.
  • investing £25 million in c.300,000 CO2 monitors for schools.
  • improving the management of ventilation across the public sector estate including deploying CO2 monitors in courts as well as targeted rollouts and trials of these monitors in other settings.
  • supporting and promoting of pilots of how to limit transmission through ventilation or air purification on passenger rail stock

Is the Private Rental Sector ready for a COVID Winter?

If we start the planning or accelerate the planning process now then as a sector, industry supplier, landlord, tenant or managing agent we should and certainly can be.

Inventory Base provides highly effective inventory and property management software which means that these vital systems such as sensor information and data as well as risk assessments and property checks can be included as a standard feature of any property report or inspection that can be carried in person or remotely with Live Inspections.