Winter in Britain has traditionally been a major public health challenge, with temperatures dropping and a spike in the number of people falling ill, having accidents, going to A&E, or even succumbing to the cold. But two chilling statistics out this week show us all too clearly that Britain can do better than this.
First it was revealed that episodes of hypothermia have jumped by 40% over the three years since the 2010 election. Doctors treated more than 28,000 cases in NHS hospitals in England last year alone. Then on Tuesday, we learnt that there was a 29% surge in the number of people who died unnecessarily last winter.
The technical term for the figures published by the Office for National Statistics is 'excess winter deaths' – this is the number of additional deaths that occur during winter months compared to the rest of the year. In total, 31,100 more people died between December and last March. That’s 31,100 deaths that by their very definition were entirely preventable.
This isn’t just a one-off that can be explained away by a single cold winter. It’s reflective of the huge pressures being felt across our NHS because people are struggling to keep themselves warm. For every person who tragically loses their life over the winter months, eight more have to be admitted to hospital. That works out at just under a quarter of a million extra patients at a time when David Cameron has put our A&E services into crisis.
Our NHS spends a staggering £850m each year treating winter-related diseases brought on by cold housing. And that’s the key point. According to the World Health Organisation, as many as 30% of excess winter deaths are directly caused by people living in homes that aren’t warm enough.
There are three things the government should be doing right now to address this very serious problem. First, we can’t combat fuel poverty without addressing the fact that our energy market is broken and too many people are being charged sky high prices for their gas and electricity. Energy bills have gone up by £300 since the last election and a typical household now pays an eye-watering £1,400 a year. But while wholesale energy prices have risen just 1.6% since 2011, the Big Six energy giants have hiked prices by an average 10.4% a year over the same period.
That’s why Labour has pledged to freeze gas and electricity prices, break up the Big Six and reset the market to deliver fairer prices in the future. We would also move all pensioners aged over 75 onto the cheapest energy tariff. When over 80% of the people who lose their lives in winter are 75 or older, it makes sense to do this for the age group most vulnerable to cold weather and least likely to be able to access the cheapest energy deals online.
Second, we need to tackle the cost of living crisis. It’s no surprise many people feel nervous about turning their thermostat up when households are £1,600 worse off since 2010 and prices have risen faster than wages in 40 of the last 41 months. That’s why we need to put money in people’s pockets by incentivising firms to pay a living wage, extending childcare and building an economy that works for working people.
Third, much more needs to be done to improve the thermal efficiency of our homes. It’s no coincidence that the region I represent, the North West, has both the highest rate of excess winter deaths and one of the deepest levels of fuel poverty in the country. Ultimately, the best way to help people who can’t afford to properly heat their homes is by reducing the amount of gas and electricity they need to use in the first place.
But as a country we have some of the most energy inefficient domestic properties in Europe. Conversely, countries like Germany, the Netherlands and across Scandinavia have far lower levels of winter mortality than the UK despite many of them having a much harsher winter climate. Take Sweden for instance. The weather there is 7 degrees colder on average, but a home in Dudley uses 4 to 5 times more energy than a typical house in Malmo.
Yet progress in insulating our homes under this government has been utterly lamentable. More than 10,000 people were supposed to sign up to the Green Deal this year, but only 219 have had measures installed so far under the flagship energy efficiency scheme. Its twin ECO scheme is poorly targeted and estimated to lift just 250,000 households out of fuel poverty over the next 10 years. That’s 50,000 fewer than fell into fuel poverty last winter alone.
It’s time David Cameron took some real action to help people most threatened by the cold this winter. Too many pensioners will be freezing tonight - the Prime Minister would do far better to freeze energy bills instead.