Fuel poverty report reveals deadly impact of 'Beast from the East'

By agency reporter
September 19, 2018

A new report by National Energy Action (NEA) and Energy Action Scotland (EAS) investigates the major challenges the UK experienced during the severe cold weather in early 2018, and says it caused a huge surge in preventable deaths amongst the frail and elderly. It details how thousands more vulnerable households were left stranded without access to support.

The UK Fuel Poverty Monitor is the annual investigative report on fuel poverty in the UK and within each of the four nations.

The report authors say that based on ONS data, in England alone there were as many as 1,724 extra deaths during the 'Beast from the East' (22 February to 3 March 2018). Across the UK the number the number may even be as high as 2000. The causes vary but the report authors estimate up to 570 of the excess deaths were attributable to respiratory diseases, 690 to cardio-vascular diseases and 520 vulnerable people may have perished in cold homes during the freezing weather.

Other causes may have included influenza, trips and falls or in a small number of cases, hypothermia. Many more thousands died in the weeks following the cold snap, with 37,020 Excess Winter Deaths predicted across the U.K for the whole 2017-18 winter, compared with a five-year average of 32,200 (a difference of 4,820). Beyond preventable deaths the report says the impacts left national and local health and social care services ‘creaking at the seams’. 

The research is based on feedback from agencies on the front line as well as key national departments. The authors say they hope to ensure key lessons can be learned in advance of this coming winter to save lives and health and care services money.

Dr Jamie-Leigh Ruse, principal author and Senior Research and Policy Officer at NEA comments: “Most days in this period saw more deaths than the corresponding day than in any of the previous five years. Beyond the direct impact of the cold on existing health conditions, one of the key causes was relevant strategic frameworks for cold weather planning or other key actions to reduce cold related ill-health or deaths were not applied consistently across the UK nations or locally.”

The authors highlight that as a result of poor planning or a lack of national resources, people in the UK were almost 10 times more likely to die from a cold home than a road traffic accident. The report also warns that despite some winters being much milder, on average, there are still approximately 9,700 premature deaths a year due to vulnerable people, often struggling with existing ill-health, being unable to heat their homes adequately, if at all.

 Ruse continues: “Beyond the scale of preventable premature deaths, hospital patients were being discharged before they were ready and without sufficient in-home checks. We heard frequent reports of vulnerable people being discharged to homes with no light or heat. This is despite national guidance to the contrary and this left many frail patients stuck in a cycle of being admitted to hospital, discharged only to be readmitted as a result of their poor housing conditions. With as many as one in twenty hospital admissions likely to follow these trends, no wonder health and care services were left ‘creaking at the seams.”

The report also notes how volunteers and organisations worked round the clock to provide emergency support to low income families and elderly residents who would normally not ask for help but who did so in the face of a crisis. However, difficulties in getting help to people living in remote areas was common as was limited staff capacity which meant most areas failed to cope with demand for emergency heating, heating repairs, medical services and even food.

Norman Kerr, Director of Energy Action Scotland adds: “Whilst it was welcome to see voluntary and community organisations stepping up to provide much needed help and support, in future, we need to learn from this dire experience. In Scotland we hope the Government’s winter campaigns such as Ready Scotland will focus much more on preventative measures. As well as advice, the Government should provide additional direct support to keep homes warm this coming winter. With the publication of the new draft Fuel Poverty Strategy, this is also an opportune time for increased collaboration with health colleagues.”

Pat Austin, Director of NEA Northern Ireland added: “In Northern Ireland we saw enhanced demand for oil hardship payments but often this wasn’t able to be delivered due to the treacherous roads and inconsistent priority being given to the most vulnerable households. The suppliers and fuel industry must up its game in future and we must ensure there is better coordination by developing a Northern Ireland Cold Weather Plan.”

 Carole Morgan-Jones, Director of NEA Cymru concludes: “The cold weather in Wales increased the numbers of clients needing help and support due to broken heating systems and others needing emergency meter top ups or temporary electric heating. We hope the report is a wakeup call on the need for the Welsh Government to develop a crisis heating repair scheme and Cold Weather Plan to support vulnerable households at times of extreme weather to stop preventable excess winter deaths in Wales.”

The report highlights a series of lessons learnt for practitioners as well as setting out national and UK wide policy recommendations.

In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, the report calls for the development of comprehensive national Cold Weather Plans similar to that in England produced by Public Heath England (PHE). Across each nation, the report urges all relevant public health agencies to enhance activity to promote or replicate existing national guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) on how to address excess winter deaths and reduce the number of cold homes.

The report also calls for each nation to do more to facilitate and help fund the delivery of health prevention-based affordable warmth programmes. In the short-term, the authors say energy suppliers and local authorities can also improve access to adequate emergency credit for pre-payment customers and crisis loans during severe cold weather. They also emphasise that fuel providers of oil and LPG can do more to ensure the most vulnerable are not left without access to fuel during extreme cold weather. It is argued that if key lessons can be learned in advance of this coming winter, it will save lives and health and care services money.

The links between cold homes and ill heath are now very well recognised. When the temperature falls below 16°C, respiratory function is impaired. When it reaches 12°C increased strain is placed on the cardiovascular system. When the temperature reaches 5-8°C, an increased risk of death can be observed at population level. Whilst cold weather directly triggers these impacts, it can take three days after a cold spell for deaths from coronary thrombosis to peak, and 12 days for deaths from respiratory conditions. It can take up to 40 days for deaths to return to average levels.

* Read the UK Fuel Poverty Monitor 2017-18 report here 

* National Energy Action https://www.nea.org.uk/

* Energy Action Scotland https://www.eas.org.uk/


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