This morning the Office for National Statistics announced that there were 31,100 excess winter deaths last winter.
To say this is a national shame (as we have done) is both a cliché and also absolutely true.
Excess winter deaths – or the additional deaths during the winter months when compared to the rest of the year – are entirely preventable.
Yet in the UK the numbers remain stubbornly high. Today’s figures show a 29% rise on the previous year and represent a four year high.
We all know that last winter was cold and long, but the figures are still unacceptable. That older people’s lives are still at the mercy of the weather in the twenty-first century is something we should rightly be ashamed of.
The scientific consensus is clear – deaths are directly related to cold. A study by Donaldson and Keatinge published as long ago as 1997, and quoted in the Chief Medical Officers report of 2009, showed that following a cold snap there is a peak of deaths due to heart attacks two days later, followed by a peak due to strokes five days later, and a peak due to respiratory problems twelve days later.
Age UK is responding to the evidence with an integrated strategy. Firstly we support our local Age UK partners to provide immediate services for older people in winter. Things like winter warmer packs, energy efficiency checks or good neighbour schemes make a huge difference to vulnerable older people.
Secondly, we are working to raise awareness among all ages of the risk that cold poses to older people’s health. Despite the shocking scale of excess winter deaths in this country, many people are unaware of the dangerous effect of the cold on health. Research commissioned by Age UK last winter showed that the majority of adults think that hypothermia is the main health problem in winter – in fact strokes, heart attacks and respiratory problems are far more of a risk.
We know that getting the right information about the need to keep warm to people at the right time is critical, so this winter we are again working with the Met Office to send out their alerts when a period of very cold weather is forecast. We are also piloting a project in one area to distribute room thermometers and messages about the need to keep warm through professionals such as occupational therapists and gas safety engineers.
But many older people know that they should keep warm – they just cannot afford the rapidly rising cost of energy. Energy prices have become a hot political topic this autumn. Age UK’s view is that we need to look long term and tackle the underlying issue of poorly insulated homes.
The UK has some of the most energy inefficient homes in Europe. Our love affair with old country cottages and Victorian terraces means that the average Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rating for UK homes is only around 55 (the SAP rating for a typical new home is around 80). There has been enormous progress, and the average home is now much more energy efficient than it was twenty years ago – but a significant proportion of the housing stock is still cold, draughty and expensive to heat.
That is why we are campaigning with others for a major programme of investment to make all the UK’s homes warm and energy efficient. With modern technology, we know that many homes can be significantly improved.
As the Chancellor prepares his Autumn Statement and considers how and whether to reduce the environmental and social taxes on energy bills, we are urging him to take note of the national shame of excess winter deaths and to do everything in his power to make sure that one day, this will be a thing of the past.
Age UK is campaigning for warm homes. Add your voice, and help prevent 24,000 older people dying each winter.