This time last year, the Excess Winter Deaths statistics showed an enormous jump to over 40,000 for the previous winter. This year, the number returned to its trend line, at 24,300 (including 20,800 amongst the over 65s) in England and Wales during the winter of 2015/16. But if this lower figure is ‘normal’, it is still a disgraceful situation.
These are deaths which are largely attributable to the cold, and Britain usually reports much higher numbers than other, colder, neighbouring countries. Last year’s spike was also blamed on flu, and it is important that older people do ensure that they get a flu jab each winter. But the cold is a killer – research shows conclusively that when the temperatures dip below 6 degrees, the incidence of respiratory and circulatory illnesses starts rising, and most of those deaths are attributable to those illnesses. It is rather chilling to note that the average temperature in January in London is 6 degrees – let alone other parts of the country – so we are not dealing with circumstances where the cause is a sudden cold spell.
For a decade, Government ministers have recognised this issue, and variously described it as a scandal or a disgrace. But they have been painfully slow to introduce policies to address it. The programmes for energy efficiency improvements in our homes, which would enable people to keep adequately warm at an affordable cost, have been hopelessly inadequate. Still today we have 2.4m households living in fuel poverty, a definition which describes people on low incomes facing high heating costs. The Government’s statutory advisory group – the Committee for Fuel Poverty – reports that the proposed level of resources for programmes designed to make most of our housing stock acceptably warm and energy efficient by 2030 (the Government’s target date) is under-funded by over £10bn. And that date is more than a decade away. At the rate of Excess Winter Deaths reported for last winter, we will be mourning another 300,000+ in the years till then.
These are largely avoidable deaths, and bring in their wake illnesses and simply misery. That is the human problem. But behind that is a financial problem for the NHS, coping with all that illness, which is measured at £1.35bn each year. And there is the problem of importing energy (often from rather volatile countries) since we are not producing much from our own natural resources, and, of course, wanting to invest in green energy to cut our carbon emissions and improve our air quality. Overall, these grim statistics for Excess Winter Deaths reveal a significant human tragedy and a substantial economic cost. The solution is not rocket science: it requires investment and political will, but the rewards would be hugely worthwhile.
These ‘normal’ winter mortality data are simply unacceptable. Our society deserves a more resolute approach which makes both human and economic sense, and we need it soon. By definition, those in fuel poverty are on low incomes and cannot afford the solutions so we need to provide help, but our whole country would be the better off for doing so.