Still substantially higher than in most European countries, the figures for 2010-2011 show a small fall from the previous year, with winter deaths in all age groups falling from 28,570 to 28,150 in Great Britain (the figures for Northern Irelandare not yet available). Of these, the majority were among people over 65 – 26,010 falling to 23,840.
In truth, since winter is defined as the 4 months December to March, the deaths counted as winter deaths are sometimes a bit arbitrary. The substantial point is that they represent only the visible tip of an iceberg of illness, misery, unhappiness and anxiety. Thanks to some authoritative research earlier this year by the Marmot team (on public health), we now know a lot more about the adverse effects of cold.
Obviously it exacerbates underlying circulatory and respiratory illnesses, but also feeds into depression and mental health, and by dint of people skimping on food in order to afford fuel bills, some people are not feeding themselves adequately. These elements remain a scourge on our older population, however many deaths are counted by the statistics.
There are actions here for all of us. Older people should take seriously the threat that cold poses to their health, and not shrug it off saying that they have lived with cold winters in the past. Communities should take a more neighbourly approach to older people in their locality, offering help with shopping or walking the dog, or inviting older neighbours round for a good meal and some company – remember, 1 household in every 6 is an older person living alone.
Above all, the Government must take seriously its whole approach to fuel poverty. It is now estimated that over 5m households in England are in fuel poverty, with half of them older households, yet the Winter Fuel Payment has been cut back, the Warm Front programme is only a third its former size, whilst energy prices are soaring.
Addressing the woeful condition of too much of our housing which is poorly heated and insulated could do so much.
It would enable people to keep adequately warm at an affordable cost.
It would save energy and reduce carbon emissions.
It would generate jobs and economic activity.
How many more avoidable winter deaths do we need before we resolve to embrace this challenge?