It is now well understood that cold homes are dangerous. People who are vulnerable because of underlying health or mobility issues can face an increased risk in cold conditions from high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and respiratory illnesses, as well as dizziness, falls and depression.
All of this costs our health services at least £1.3bn per year and, of course, there is a huge personal cost too in terms of wellbeing, quality of life and simple happiness.
INSULATION, INSULATION, INSULATION
The proper and sustainable solution is to insulate and equip our houses so that people can keep adequately warm at an affordable cost – as, for instance, our friends in Scandinavia do.
But our programmes to get there have been frankly underwhelming and as the political parties seek to develop a new Fuel Poverty Strategy in England, the number-crunchers point out that with the current level of resources committed to these programmes we will still be talking about fuel poverty and excess winter deaths in 2030.
That’s why Age UK insists that we need a significant up-scaling of this work. Our campaign for warm homes is calling for all political parties to commit to upgrading all homes to meet much higher energy efficient standards.
Meanwhile, our new research is the strongest indicator yet that the Winter Fuel Payment has made a real and significant impact. Introduced in 1997 and quickly accelerated up to £200 for every older person household (and £300 where someone over 80 was present), the Winter Fuel Payment is paid automatically and is not means-tested.
Our research has looked at the trend line in excess winter deaths up to 2000, projected those numbers forward to today as if nothing had changed, and then looked at the actual number of excess winter deaths recorded since 2000, controlling for other associated factors such as temperature change and household spending on energy.
A REDUCTION OF 12,000 DEATHS
The finding is a dramatic reduction of some 12,000 excess winter deaths per year; the average annual number has settled at 27,000 excess winter deaths in the decade 2003/4 to 2012/13. A single unnecessary death due to the cold is a tragedy so an average of 27,000 excess winter deaths is still far too high. However, it seems the number would have been a lot higher still were it not for the existence of the Winter Fuel Payment.
The Winter Fuel Payment costs around £2bn per year, so it’s no surprise that in tough economic times, keeping it has been challenged in some circles. But trimming it or means-testing it does not yield impressive savings, and axing it clearly risks sending those excess winter deaths figures shooting upwards again.
It has been shown elsewhere that when a benefit is paid with its purpose clearly labelled (rather than just as an anonymous cash payment), it prompts people to adjust their behaviour and put it to its nominated use. So it seems that confident that the Winter Fuel Payment will arrive in winter, older people have been happier to keep their heating on despite the escalating cost, thus keeping themselves that bit warmer and more comfortable.
Above all, thankfully 12,000 people have stayed alive each year who otherwise might not have done.
So let’s not meddle with the Winter Fuel Payment until a dynamic fuel poverty strategy has not only been developed but is being implemented. Politicians on all sides have rightly described excess winter deaths as a national scandal: without the Winter Fuel Payment they could turn into a national disaster.
To obtain a summary of the new research, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org