Winter is coming

The number of excess winter deaths each year continues to rise, according to official figures

29th November 2018

The increasingly harsh and frosty winters that we have experienced in recent years pose a significant threat to the lives of many vulnerable people in the UK.

There were an estimated 50,100 excess winter deaths (EWDs) in England and Wales over the 2017/18 winter period, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This 45.1% rise in deaths from 2016/17 follows the 39.5% increase reported by the ONS last year, continuing the trend of a rising number of EWDs in England and Wales.

It is unsurprising that, even on an international scale, more people die in winter than in summer. After all, the winter season is known to bring heightened risks of injury, illness and depression. It seems however that the UK is particularly susceptible to the dangerous impacts that the winter can have on our health. Earlier this year, it was revealed the UK has the sixth worst long-term rate of excess winter mortality out of 30 countries in Europe according to climate change think tank E3G and fuel poverty charity National Energy Action.

So, what is causing this particularly high rate of EWDs in the UK? In 2017, the ONS reported that over one third of all excess winter deaths were caused by respiratory diseases. The most prominent of these respiratory diseases was seasonal flu, an acute respiratory infection that circulates in winter. Among high risk groups, the flu can result in severe complications that often prove to be fatal. Elderly people are one of the most susceptible groups, with the World Health Organisation warning that in industrialised countries most deaths associated with flu occur among people aged 65 or older.

It is particularly concerning that the three leading causes of excess winter deaths in the UK identified by the ONS are all illnesses closely associated with the elderly: respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases, and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Older people are clearly vulnerable during cold spells, especially those older people suffering from degenerative health issues. Studies have suggested that the severity of illnesses like Alzheimer’s fluctuates seasonally, with cognitive impairment becoming worse in winter. This problem is all the more severe considering past research which has shown that, due to the physiological changes that occur with ageing, older people may not always perceive how cold it really is, meaning they do not take the necessary steps to keep their bodies warm. It is therefore unsurprising that for the winter period of 2017/18, 79.4% of estimated EWDs were among those aged 85 and over, a figure that has risen since last year.

Responding to these figures, Caroline Abrahams the charity director of  Age UK, said: “Last winter there were nearly 46,000 excess winter deaths amongst people aged 65 and over – a shocking 92 per cent of all excess deaths – equating to 379 older people a day. These distressing figures are now the highest we’ve seen in over 40 years.

“A toxic cocktail of poor housing, high energy prices and ill health can make winter a dangerous time for many older people, and tragically it is the oldest old and those who are the most vulnerable who particularly suffer the consequences.

“We know such high levels of excess winter deaths are not inevitable. As a country we are not doing enough to ensure our older population stays warm and well throughout the harsh winter months.”

It is important to remember however, that it is not only the elderly who are vulnerable to excess winter mortality. This time last year, the story of Elaine Morrall, the 38-year-old mum from Cheshire who died “wrapped in a coat and scarf” in her freezing home, made national news. Unable to pay the bills after her benefits were stopped, Elaine only ever turned the heating on when her children came home from school. Fuel poverty (being unable to afford to keep your home adequately heated), is not mentioned as a cause of EWDs in the report by the ONS, but research by E3G has found that on average 9,700 excess winter mortality deaths are caused by a cold home. The research also notes that these deaths are largely preventable as UK homes are among the least energy efficient in Europe.

These figures remind us all just how unacceptable it is that in a modern country like Britain even during milder weather the cold still kills

As well as being the co-author of this research, Peter Smith also works for National Energy Action (NEA), a charity working to end fuel poverty. Commenting on the findings, he said: “As the UK experiences one of the harshest winters for several years, it is important to remember that this causes needless hardship, places health at risk and leads to premature death. Beyond the terrible scale of cold-related winter deaths, people experiencing fuel poverty can also struggle with poor mental health, and this can sadly lead to total social isolation and even suicide. This preventable tragedy must end. The government must support the strong case for the re-introduction of adequate public capital investment — a necessity if we are to make the UK’s homes warmer and safe for human habitation.”

The problem of fuel poverty in the UK is only becoming worse as fuel prices rise year on year. People across the country are continuing to suffer simply because they cannot afford to keep their homes warm. The rise in EWD figures is therefore no surprise to Smith and the NEA.

“These figures remind us all just how unacceptable it is that in a modern country like Britain even during milder weather the cold still kills. It should also be noted that for every EWD there are between six and eight unplanned hospital visits and many people not hospitalised will also be using other depressing and dangerous ways to fend off the effects of living in a cold home.

“We all know that people regularly cut back on their energy use and rely on food banks to get by during winter. But in a modern country like Britain people are even barbecuing in sinks, going to bed early to keep warm and permanently using candles for lighting. Frontline workers have also told us they regularly see dangerous appliances being used, ventilation blocked off and people spending days in A&E and libraries just to keep warm.”

Vulnerable groups are being driven to drastic measures to simply survive the winter. Clearly, there needs to be better provision for those who struggle economically, physically and mentally during the colder months. After all, excess winter deaths are just that — excesses. They are largely preventable, but in order to put a stop to the ever-increasing number of EWDs, the government needs to take greater steps towards protecting the most susceptible members of society during wintertime.

29th November 2018