With the longest cold snap of the winter still underway, and snow covering much of the country, what can be done to protect older people from the cold?
As we get older, we become more vulnerable to the effects of cold. If you have read previous Age UK blogs, you’ll be familiar with the statistics: around 25,000 additional deaths each winter compared to the rest of the year in England and Wales, the majority of which are older people.
For every one degree the average winter temperature drops below 18 degrees C, there are 8,000 additional winter deaths. Following a cold snap in a British winter, there is a predictable pattern: a peak of deaths due to heart attacks two days later, a peak of strokes five days later, and a peak of deaths due to breathing problems twelve days later.
It’s simple, and devastating, and something which we should all be shouting about.
At Age UK we’re helping to make people aware of the health risks of cold and the simple steps – like keeping bedroom windows closed at night – that older people can take to protect their health.
But the bottom line is that many older people simply cannot afford to keep their home warm enough. Age UK estimates that around 6 million older people are currently living in fuel poverty (in other words, they would have to spend more than 10% of their income in order to heat their homes adequately). Increasing fuel prices this winter mean this situation is set to get worse.
Age UK believes that the most effective long term solution is to dramatically improve the energy efficiency of older people’s homes. As a nation, we have some of the poorest insulated housing stock in Europe. Our homes leak heat from walls, windows and ceilings. But this can be tackled – we have the technology to make everyone’s home super-insulated, warm and cheap to heat.
The Government is launching their new flagship policy for home energy efficiency, the Green Deal. It’s a market based system, offering loans to fund energy efficiency improvements. Alongside it runs the new Energy Company Obligation, ECO, which will fund both ‘hard to treat’ homes – for example, properties with solid walls – and vulnerable households, including those in fuel poverty.
But even the Government’s own estimates show that these policies are not going to be sufficient to tackle the vast numbers of people who cannot afford to heat their homes.
We need a new approach. We need to comprehensively and systematically bring the energy efficiency of our housing stock up to levels where everyone can live in a warm, well-insulated home.
Investment on this scale costs. But there is a potential source of revenue which would deliver enough funding. We are all now paying carbon taxes on our energy bills. These taxes were brought in to compensate for the damage that carbon emissions cause to people and the environment. Over the next 15 years it’s estimated that they will bring in up to £63 billion. At the moment, this money is being used for general spending.
But it could be used to make all our homes super-energy efficient. Investing in home energy efficiency will not only help older people keep themselves warm and protect their health, it would also lower energy bills, reduce carbon emissions and create UK jobs. The benefits would be huge. Other European governments such as France have already announced that they are planning to use carbon revenues in this way.
It’s so simple, it almost seems a no-brainer. But to persuade the Government to make this happen, we need more than a good idea. We need broad support from a range of organisations and a large number of individuals to make this happen.
That is why Age UK has joined with others in the Energy Bill Revolution, an alliance of over one hundred organisations, including charities, businesses and trade unions. Together we are calling on the Government to use our carbon taxes to super-insulate our homes.