Dan Jarvis: Winter death toll should shame coldest of hearts

Fuel poverty must be tackled before more elderly people die needlessly, says Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis.Fuel poverty must be tackled before more elderly people die needlessly, says Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis.
Fuel poverty must be tackled before more elderly people die needlessly, says Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis.
THE Office for National Statistics has released figures showing that a staggering 24,300 people died from mostly preventable causes over the course of winter last year.

Over the last five years, more than 152,000 of the most vulnerable people up and down the country have died over the winter months. That’s like losing a city the size of York in just five short years.

In a modern Britain that’s completely unacceptable. Yet – to a greater or lesser degree – both Labour and Tory governments have seemed to simply accept that thousands of older, vulnerable people will die every winter because they can’t properly heat their homes, or get the care and support they need. That has to be a source of great shame for us all.

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So-called excess winter deaths are calculated by measuring the number of people who die during the period between November and March every year, and comparing that figure against the summer months.

In common with most countries, in Britain more people die over winter than summer.

However, our record compared with much colder countries like Germany and Norway is poor. Even across the UK there are huge differences in the numbers affected, with people in the South West much more likely to die during winter than in the East of England.

All too many deaths over the winter are preventable; better heating, health and housing are the key to reducing excess winter deaths.

It’s time to address this quiet crisis.

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Some of the stories from those most at risk over the winter months are heartbreaking, like 83-year-old William - a low income pensioner struggling to get by, having to choose between heating and eating. William has served in the Royal Navy, but he is now reduced to living in a home he describes as a ‘shack’ – which the local hospital warns may kill him. He suffers with respiratory problems and has to keep his flat warm to protect his health, but the money he spends on heating often stop him from putting a decent meal on the table.

The mark of a civilised society is how we treat people like William. This is a problem we can – and must – solve, but it’s also a problem that no government has paid enough attention to.

That’s why I’m calling on Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt to come up with a credible, ambitious, cross-government strategy that helps people stay safe over winter. While the Government has responded to my criticisms by pointing to their ‘Cold Weather Plan’, that ‘Plan’ fails to direct all of the many resources of government to addressing this problem. If their Cold Weather Plan was effective we would not have seen so many thousands of unnecessary deaths since it was introduced in 2011.

Solving the excess winter deaths crisis is not just the responsibility of the NHS. All too often our Health Service is called in to help older or vulnerable people only when their situations have become life threatening. If we are to take the pressure off the NHS, Government ministers must take action to deal with the cold homes and fuel poverty that drive so many people to need medical help over winter.

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Neither, as the Government may have you believe, can this problem simply be left up to the energy companies to fix. Of course energy companies must offer a fair deal for customers, particularly those living in fuel poverty, but it is the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the energy regulator – Ofgem – that have the ability to properly regulate the energy market.

No one claims that all of the solutions to the excess winter deaths crisis are easy. Yet many of those solutions are within reach of government ministers if they had the political will to grasp them: better insulation for colder homes, more help for those living in fuel poverty, and support for lonely or isolated people to connect with their local communities.

Yet in the face of 152,000 older, vulnerable people dying from largely preventable causes over just five years, this Government is still failing to offer real or meaningful action. They must take excess winter deaths seriously but their response so far has been nothing short of complacent and irresponsible. And it’s costing lives.

That’s why I’m engaging with the major energy companies, housing providers and charities to address this problem and challenging them to do more this winter to reduce excess winter months and protect our most vulnerable friends and neighbours.

If we want to save lives this winter, we need action now. And I, for one, am determined to make sure we get it.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central.