Barnsley MP challenges Government over ‘national scandal’ of winter deaths

Poor insulation and heating bills are cited as key factors in increased winter death rates
Poor insulation and heating bills are cited as key factors in increased winter death rates
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Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis is ramping up his campaign to tackle the “national scandal” of excess winter deaths, in response to the Government’s “shameful” failure to draw up an effective strategy.

The Labour MP has been pressing ministers to revise their approach to reducing winter mortality since 2012, when so-called avoidable deaths were at 24,000.

Since then the death rate has almost doubled, and Mr Jarvis claims the Government currently has no “proper plan” to prevent further tragedy.

According to the latest ONS figures, almost 44,000 “excess” deaths were recorded for the winter of 2014/15. This was the highest number recorded since 1999, with 27% more people dying in the winter months compared with the non-winter months.

The majority of deaths (36,300) occurred among people aged 75 and over, with cold weather and underlying health conditions cited as key causes. But virulent strains of winter flu, along with housing conditions and energy bills, are also thought to be contributing factors.

With winter fast approaching, Mr Jarvis has sought to put the issue on the political agenda while there is still a window for action. On Monday, he asked Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to outline his department’s “specific plans” to minimise the number of deaths this winter.

In his reply, Mr Javid stated that Public Health England (PHE) has set out a series of recommendations for public bodies in its annual Cold Weather Plan. But Mr Jarvis has told the Yorkshire Post that he has “real concerns” about this strategy.

“The Government’s Cold Weather Plan has been published annually since 2011, yet the number of pensioners dying has risen not fallen,” he explained. “For the Secretary of State to reference a plan that is not working, and imply that this is somehow good enough, raises real concerns about the preparedness of the Government.

“It is unacceptable for the cold to kill this many people in a modern country such as ours [and] it is shameful that the Government does not have a proper plan to prevent this happening again this year.

“This is what is needed if we are to save lives this winter, and this is what I will continue to press for.”

His calls for action have been echoed by Caroline Abrahams, the director of the charity Age UK. She told the paper there have been an estimated 2.5 million excess deaths over the last 60 years, citing “cold, poorly insulated homes”as a major cause.

“Because our resilience to the cold reduces with age, older people can be at considerable risk, even if the winter weather seems relatively mild,” she said. “That’s why the Government needs to be much more ambitious about eradicating fuel poverty, and transforming the coldest homes through a sustained energy efficiency programme.”

Earlier this year, Mr Jarvis raised the issue with David Cameron, urging the then-Prime Minister to “lead the charge in reducing excess deaths”. But his reply, written in the wake of the referendum result, stated it was up to his successor “to build on the steps the Government has taken”.

Responding to Mr Jarvis’ new comments on the issue, a Government spokesperson said: “Extensive work goes into planning for winter with NHS England and PHE every year to ensure the health system is robustly prepared. This includes publishing an evidence-based winter plan and offering a free flu jab to at-risk groups.”