Tackling excess winter deaths and fuel poverty

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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. Continue reading “Tackling excess winter deaths and fuel poverty”

Calling for action on winter deaths and illnesses

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Photo credit: zenjazzygeek (Flickr Creative Commons)

 

A NICE Guideline is not mandatory, but it is pretty firm – it uses the language ‘should’. So its Guideline on how Health and Wellbeing Boards – and indeed health professionals across the board – should deal with excess winter deaths and the issue of winter morbidity is very welcome, and offers encouragement to campaigners who have been looking for a greater focus on this age-old problem.

NICE starts unambiguously by pinning the problem to cold and hard-to-heat homes. And although the level of public concern rises when there is a spell of really cold weather, NICE points out that the health consequences begin to appear in ‘normal’ cold weather – when temperatures fall to six or five degrees (and that happens much more frequently that touching zero or below). Continue reading “Calling for action on winter deaths and illnesses”

A Lesson from Siberia

Portrait of a old woman in winter

In 1993, two friends and colleagues of mine alighted from an internal flight in the heart of Siberia. The light was failing and the temperature plummeted as they wound their way from the landing strip into an endless forest. They were lost. Eventually, coming upon a wooden settlement, they found shelter with the village teacher, the only English speaker for many, many miles.

Professor Bill Keatinge later confided in me that he had learned two lessons from this incident. One was to learn Russian (which he later did, with some panache). The second was to dress like the Russians. Because Yakutsk, the city which they had come to visit, is the coldest city in the world. During their trip, the temperature fell to a mere -26C. The lowest winter temperatures reach -60.

And what, may we ask, was the attraction of this cold Siberian city? Ironically, the inhospitable, intractable, bone gnawing cold was the motivation for their journey. They were part of the Eurowinter Group, a collection of Europe’s finest scientists, whose mission was to unravel the complicated story of winter deaths in Europe. Until that time, no-one had a convincing explanation (scientists call this a ‘model’) of the pattern of winter deaths in Europe which varied from one country to another. And the prime question was why on earth should the British Isles, with its temperate maritime climate, be the villain of the piece, with many more ‘excess winter deaths’ than its colder European neighbours? Continue reading “A Lesson from Siberia”

A new fuel poverty strategy

A thermal image of a house

The fuel poverty strategy of 2001 (‘to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016’) has patently failed. A new one is promised in the current Energy Bill, which is completing its Parliamentary stages.

Within six months of the date of the Act receiving Royal Assent (in December or January), the Government is bound to propose a new strategy, after which there will be a public consultation, a Government response, and the tabling of the necessary secondary legislation. This ponderous process means we might not have a new strategy in place till early 2015 (though ministers hope to move faster), but clearly the thinking time has already started.

Age UK, with others, is in constant conversation with the Department of Energy & Climate Change. A key bone of contention is the targets to be set in the strategy, since these will only be real if there is funding to underpin them, and there is considerable uncertainty about the available funds. Continue reading “A new fuel poverty strategy”

The shame of excess winter deaths

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.

We know this because other countries with much harsher winters – such as the Scandinavian countries – have significantly fewer excess winter deaths.440x210_Snow-in-Shepton-Mal

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. Continue reading “The shame of excess winter deaths”

Why we need an Energy Bill Revolution

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.

Photo: Ell Brown (Creative Commons)
Photo: Ell Brown (Creative Commons)

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. Continue reading “Why we need an Energy Bill Revolution”