Rising energy bills will put millions at risk from ‘fuel poverty gap’
Two hundred people, most of them elderly, will die in Britain of cold-related diseases every day this winter, according to calculations by Britain’s leading advocacy group for old people, Age UK.
“The fact that these ‘excess’ deaths occur in winter makes it clear that they are due directly to cold,” the organisation’s research manager, Philip Rossall, said. “And the fact that other, colder countries have lower excess winter deaths means that there is no reason that they are not preventable.”
Age UK’s special adviser for policy, Mervyn Kohler, asked: “Why is this not a national scandal?” There were 26,156 excess winter deaths during 2009-10, with figures for 2010-11 to be published next month. “There is no reason to suppose that the worsening trend will not continue,” said Kohler.
The charity’s figure of 200 deaths a day follows sharp price hikes by energy companies, credited with driving inflation to its highest level in 20 years. At the same time, a report by Britain’s leading academic expert on poverty and inequality, Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics, found a deepening “fuel poverty gap”.
David Cameron hosted the “big six” energy companies at Downing Street to discuss the impact of soaring heating bills. He later urged consumers to insulate their homes properly and to “shop around” for deals.
In his report, Hills found that 2,700 people among the 4.8 million in England and Wales living in fuel poverty (defined as spending more than 10% of income on heat and light) died in the winter of 2008-09 as a direct result – a steady increase for the third year running.
But Age UK’s briefing paper makes a distinction between deaths directly due to fuel poverty and what the charity calls “excess winter deaths” – resulting from illnesses caused or exacerbated by cold.
“The way to measure the problem is excess winter deaths,” said Rossall. “These are deaths caused by the impact on health of cold. Of course, we see a warning light with a report saying that 2,700 people are dying in fuel poverty. But what we are saying is that this is not the only relevant figure. It doesn’t measure the scale of the problem.”
Which is, according to the document, that “among older people, the effects of cold housing were evident in terms of higher mortality risk, physical health and mental health”.
Of the 200 a day who die, Rossall said, “more than 90% are over 65, because they are more vulnerable and less able to cope with winter”.
The briefing paper reported: “Deaths from hypothermia are rare, but cold weather and poor heating can contribute to deaths caused by circulatory diseases (responsible for 41% of all recorded deaths by natural causes) and by respiratory diseases (13%).”
It continued: “Heart and circulatory diseases are the largest causes of mortality in adults over 65 (England and Wales), and are particularly affected by winter temperatures.”
Diet can be affected, said Rossall, as elderly people are obliged to make a choice between heat and food.
Kohler added: “Cold is the difference. And unless cold is prevented, the deaths will rise.” The only way to prevent this, he said, was to stay warm, “and obviously if you increase the price, you ration the heat.”
The report sets the UK’s appalling record in a European context: “Most dramatically, the UK has a higher rate of ‘excess winter deaths’ than other countries with colder climates.”
It added: “From 1997-98, on average 18% of the UK’s winter deaths were excess, compared to the 10-12% in typically colder countries such as Finland, Sweden and Norway.” The figure for Germany and the Netherlands was 11%.
“Sweden, Germany, Finland – these are the countries to emulate,” said Kohler. “Partly because local government is organised in a way that is more powerful and civic in its awareness of the impact of cold, and housing stock is very much better built and insulated. Although energy prices per unit are 50% higher in Sweden than in the UK, the average bill is 30% lower.”
Regulation of tenancy was tighter in those countries, said Rossall, especially in the private rental sector – “and that is where the biggest problem is”.
“The cost of heating an adequately sized house is estimated to be £1,300 a year,” said Kohler. “So if you are on pension credit of £7,000, you are very fuel-poor indeed.”
He added that the prime minister’s recommendation for consumers to shop around was “inappropriate for many elderly people – it presumes either internet access people don’t have and hours waiting on the phone for people who cannot be understood”.
Rossall added: “We are talking about people who become confused, people with dementia, vulnerable people.”
“Most of our elderly people now live in poverty,” said Kohler, and one in six of the British population is now an elderly person living alone.