Utility companies have given an assurance to consumers that they will implement a moratorium on disconnections for non-payment for the duration of Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions.

Several utilities have also promised a price freeze for the coming months, but in some cases it comes on the back of a price hike from many electricity providers.

The March restrictions took place in milder weather conditions so home heating bills will be higher during the latest restrictions.

However despite companies making a virtue out of the moratorium on disconnections, it is actually a consumer right under existing codes of practice for service providers.

In 2014 the 'Energy Engage Code' was implemented, under the code, once someone is in arrears for utilities, once they engage with the provider, they cannot be disconnected.

In any event, Gas Networks Ireland and ESB Networks are the people who carry out disconnections and they themselves have a December to March moratorium on disconnections.

So, consumer protections in this area already exist, regardless of providers promises.

Many people are using pre-pay to regulate their electricity and gas bills, it makes budgeting easier.

During the March lockdown the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities announced a €100 advance on emergency credit for pre-pay customers.

This meant that if you did not have money to top up your metre, you could continue to use gas and electricity.

The credit used could be repaid at the end of lockdown, interest free.

However one customer has raised a concern. Maria Hughes spent €9 on credit on her Prepay Power gas metre during the last lockdown.

When she bought credit to top up the metre it swallowed the full €25 she bought, so she bought another €50 and only then did she creep back into the black. A daily charge of around 50cent was charged to her account.

Ms Hughes admits the charge is valid, but says it caught her off guard.

A single mother managing on a tight budget, it has been a stressful experience. 

She says "it lulled you into a false sense of security, you think you are going to be OK because there is credit there and you will have your heating, but then you go to pay it back and get a surprise". 

Her local TD, Duncan Smith, says the charges are "sneaky" and he has asked for the Commission or the Regulation of Utilities to examine the validity of applying them to pre-pay accounts during periods of Covid-19 restrictions, in particular when credit is being advanced to help people.

But the daily charge is standard and tends to apply across the board.

Prepay Power, Maria’s gas supplier, says the daily standing charge is explained "in detail" to customers when they are signing up.

It says, 'the standing charge continues to accrue during summer when the customer may not have used gas and this seems to be what surprised this customer".

Ms Hughes recognises this, but she and thousands of other hard pressed customers emerged from the lockdown, significantly more in gas metre debt than they expected.

Mr Smith says that needs to be resolved during the current restrictions.

"Any credits that are applied cannot come with hidden surcharges, people need to know that the credit they are getting is that exact amount and they are not going to be hit with a sneaky charge further into the winter," he said.

Prepay Power takes exception to the term ‘Surcharge". It told RTÉ News: "To be clear the customer was not charged a surcharge for being in debt or for availing of emergency credit to ensure she had access to gas during the lockdown when she needed it or anything of that sort". 

Interestingly it points out, "she would have faced a similar situation regardless of which supplier she was using for gas".

The Commission for the Regulation of Utilities has clarified this weekend that there will be no increase in emergency credit this time around.

It says that it was implemented before because people were cocooning and may have had difficulty getting to the shop to top up their pre-pay cards, in particular if shops were closed.

However, essential retail remains open under Level 5, and so it has been decided there is no need for the increase. 

Labour wants that to change to, with Mr Smith saying winter means more use of gas and electricity. 

"We need to see more credits being applied, people are going to need it more than they needed it last March and April’.