In the winter of 2011/12, there were 24,000 Excess Winter Deaths in England and Wales (of which 21,700 were people over 65). By way of comparison, this shocking figure dwarfs the 1,715 people killed on roads in England and Wales in 2011.
True, the figures show a fall on last year, which in turn was a fall on the gristly winter of 2009/10. In fact, amongst the very vulnerable group of older people over 75, there was actually an increase. But the figures go up and down each year, and it is too early to see long term trends. They are simply far too high to feel anything but shame for this country’s deplorable record on supporting its older citizens to cope with the cold.
The problem of coping with the cold is primarily an issue of housing. Broadly speaking, the older the house the more likely it is to be thermally inefficient, and the more expensive it will be to keep adequately warm. The proportion of our housing stock built before 1919 is 22%: a further 17% was built between 1919 and 1944. The work on insulating these homes and equipping them with modern, energy efficient heating systems has been very slow, and we have watched the numbers in fuel poverty rising remorselessly over the last eight years as energy prices have spiralled upwards.
The Government is talking a brave talk about tackling energy prices, but they can only go one way over the long term. More global demand (from the rapidly industrialising countries in particular) and diminishing supplies of fossil fuels can only mean rising prices. And the Government itself keeps adding to energy bills, by imposing on energy suppliers various social and environmental obligations which are good and desirable in themselves, but which add an extra twist to fuel prices. The answer is to become energy efficient and save energy, and so need to use less of the stuff. Improving our housing stock could have a dramatic impact, and create jobs in the building and manufacturing sector so putting growth into the economy, as well as cutting carbon emissions so saving the planet.
At Age UK, we profoundly regret the fact that the Government is axing the tax-funded Warm Front scheme (hurry before it closes for good in the new year), and it is requiring energy companies to get behind the Affordable Warmth part of the new Green Deal (funded at our expense, through our energy bills). The sums committed to helping the fuel poor are horribly modest, and forecasters all predict that the numbers in fuel poverty will rise further. Fuel poverty is not the sole cause of Excess Winter Deaths, but paint a bleak back-drop. These preventable deaths could be with us for some time yet.
Find out more about Age UK’s Spread the Warmth campaign and why we need to protect the health of older people in winter at www.spreadthewarmth.org.uk