There is nothing inevitable about excess winter deaths
Cold homes increase the risk of death and illness – more should be done to tackle fuel poverty and protect the elderly and vulnerable in winter, says Dan Jarvis
There is no doubt that Wednesday 22 November will be remembered as the day of the budget. However, buried beneath the undoubtedly important headlines about the state of our economy was the news that, last winter, 34,300 people died unnecessarily because of the cold weather. This is a national disgrace.
Since I first raised this issue with David Cameron in 2012, there have been more than 150,000 excess winter deaths. There has been no noticeable improvement in reducing the number of people dying from the cold in the last 20 years. This lack of progress is simply not good enough.
Every year, the ONS publishes figures about excess winter deaths. And every year, there is a short-term sense of unease, calls for more to be done to protect the elderly and vulnerable, and then the issue falls out of the headlines until the same thing happens again the next year. No government has got to grips with this problem and thousands of people pay the price each year.
This is primarily a problem of cold homes. When the temperature of a home routinely falls below 16 degrees, there is a much higher risk of illness and death. Cold and damp homes exacerbate respiratory problems, increase the chance of heart attacks and strokes, and can also lead to poor mental health.
There is nothing inevitable about excess winter deaths. Other European countries with much colder winters, like Norway, Finland and Sweden, have very few excess winter deaths. This is because those countries prepare for winter and have the necessary policy measures in place to ensure that people are supported.
Preparation is key. We are falling far short of what we need to be doing to eliminate excess winter deaths. Ensuring that everyone has access to central heating is just one of the areas where the necessary support is not in place. The charity National Energy Action recently alerted me to the fact that thousands of households are currently without a functioning central heating system. There is a growing problem of boilers being written off and then families being unable to afford to replace them.
I wrote to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to raise my concerns and it is clear that the support in place to help people repair and replace their boilers is not meeting increased demand. Boiler replacements carried out under the government’s Energy Company Obligation (ECO) last year were just 8% of the number completed in 2013. Without a new and targeted scheme to help those directly at risk because of an inadequate central heating system, thousands of families will face a cold winter without support.
Working with my local council in Barnsley, we have put in place a number of measures to insulate cold homes and inform people about the support services available. However, the approach across the country lacks coordination. There is no single person or department taking responsibility for dealing with this massive problem.
If we are to get to grips with this issue, it will require a coordinated approach from across government. All departments with responsibility for this area – health, business and energy, communities and local government – must work together. This work will include making energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority, strengthening the regulation of energy companies to ensure vulnerable people are getting the lowest tariff, and ensuring the NHS has a cold weather plan in place long before the winter months begin.
One of the key tests any society should be judged on is how it treats the most vulnerable. We are currently failing that test on the issue of excess winter deaths. This will continue to be a priority for me because I believe that we can forge consensus across political parties that more needs to be done.
Excess winter deaths are a stain on our national conscience but, with the right political will, we can significantly reduce them.
Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central