Following on from Part 1 which looked at temperature links and the illnesses which leads to the thousands of Excess Winter Deaths in the UK each year.
This is a less obvious problem, but still the cause of thousands of winter deaths and the seasonal reality for many. Fuel poverty is caused by a combination of three factors: poor household energy efficiency, low incomes and high energy prices. There has been the concern of 'Heat or Eat' in cold weather and as elderly people don't want to venture out in the snow, ice or bitter cold, they may not benefit from company, food and other warmth at Day Centres, a cafe, church or friends house. This puts pressure on them to heat their own house more and maybe not invite anyone in or round, which results in further isolation. FP = Fuel Poverty
More hidden impacts are from the ongoing strain of living in a cold place. A cold home increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes as blood pressure rises. A cold home is more likely to become damp and so mould grows. Respiratory illnesses worsen as does asthma and Arthritis and rheumatoid conditions which results in falls becoming more likely. All of this leads to further strain on the health service when people haven't even stepped outside.
National Energy Action: people are facing difficult choices about whether to heat their homes and forgo another household necessity such as food, or spending what they need to keep warm and avoid falling into debt. NEA estimates that in the next 15 years the cumulative effect will be 125,000 premature deaths as a result of living in cold homes.
Fuel poverty and its impacts lead to strain, poor physical health and effects on mental wellbeing. Debt from using the heating more leads to anxiety and stress. Nutrition suffers and, in the end, educational attainment and life expectancy. This can be all winter long, year in year out, especially once temperatures fall to 6C. Infants are more likely to be admitted to hospital and are almost three times more likely to suffer from coughing, wheezing or respiratory illness.
“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,” said Peter Smith, director of policy and research at NEA. “This preventable tragedy must end,” he said.
Geographically there are issues with age and type of buildings, fuel provision, such as many homes in Wales being rural and not able to get mains gas, often built of stone and so can't have cavity wall insulation. Other forms of fuel are more expensive or fluctuate greatly in price over time. In Northern Ireland, the main fuel for homes is heating oil with over 2/3rds of households reliant on an unregulated fuel to heat their houses.
The table above gives an idea of how many homes live in Fuel Poverty (FP) where a household spends more than 10% of its income on fuel costs, or the Low Income/High Costs definition - income below poverty line (including energy costs) and their energy costs are higher than is typical for their household.
Historically, temperature was a bigger factor in excess winter deaths back in the 1950s and 1960s. Overall, there has been a decrease in recent years mainly thanks to home improvements and energy efficiencies. Most homes are now easier to heat and keep warm than they were 60 years ago leading to more stable indoor environments. More people have central heating, rather than just fireplaces. And full double glazing, loft insulation and cavity wall insulation, some of these with help from government initiatives.
To ease decisions, such as whether to ‘heat or eat’, when budgets are stretched in fuel poor households, there are now a number of policies aimed at tackling excess winter mortality. These include winter fuel payments - a one-off payment from UK government. Cold weather fuel payments which are dependent on the actual weather in your local area. The Warm Home Discount scheme is a one-off electricity bill discount for people on a low income who meet the eligibility requirements, it is worth looking into this now for next winter as applications open in the summer and are limited.
There are many schemes to help provide funding for energy efficiency improvements to low-income households and those living in deprived communities to help eradicate fuel poverty. And also emergency help for a broken boiler, energy payment problems or fuel debt.
The seasonal flu vaccination/nasal spray programme is assisting with the yearly influenza outbreaks. NHS England has developed annual Cold Weather Plan, in partnership with the Local Government Association and the Met Office. "The Cold Weather Plan aims to prevent avoidable harm to health by alerting people to the negative health effects of cold weather. This should enable them to prepare and respond appropriately, and help to reduce the number of excess winter deaths. " Amber alerts for all of England were issued in February 2018 to warn of the upcoming cold and start preparations in the health service.
Is winter over for this year?
Maybe not quite. It seems there could be another cold spell this weekend. Daytime temperatures look set to plummet from +13C down to +3C and Sunday night could see a hard frost. Snowfall is more uncertain, and it won't be as severe as an event at the end of February but even so, after a mild week with hints of spring, the end of this weekend could have us all shivering again.
Model discussion and chat on the Netweather community forum