Dan Jarvis: Our collective shame over winter deaths and betrayal of elderly
It is simply unacceptable that each year tens of thousands of people are dying unnecessarily. I am not going to pretend that this is an easy problem to solve or that any one governmentis to blame.
I intend to outline where I believe the Government’s approach can be improved and, in a constructive manner, offer suggestions of steps that I believe should be taken to address this national scandal – the summer months are precisely the time when we should be preparing for the winter.
The majority of those who are dying are elderly. We know that the demographic group most affected by excess winter deaths is women aged over 85, yet we also know from the evidence across Europe that more people are dying unnecessarily here than is the case elsewhere.
Scandinavian countries including Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden all have significantly lower rates of excess winter deaths than the UK, despite all of those countries being considerably colder. One of the reasons for that is that Scandinavian countries tend to be better prepared.
I will outline several areas where preparation in our country could be improved.
The first is public health. The Office for National Statistics analysis of the most recent excess winter deaths figures highlights flu as an important factor in mortality levels, so I I was concerned to be left waiting this spring for the Government’s flu plan for the upcoming winter. It was published some two months later than last year. Why?
Secondly, we know that cold homes are a major cause of excess winter deaths. They are also a burden on our public finances. Former chief medical officer Liam Donaldson has estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £850m each year. Unfortunately, many elderly people live in fuel poverty and have to put on several layers of clothing and heat a hot water bottle because they cannot afford to have the heating on.
I welcome the fact that energy prices are falling, but they are not falling in line with wholesale prices. What discussions have Ministers had with colleagues at the Department of Energy and Climate Change about alleviating fuel poverty to help to prevent excess winter deaths?
In addition, more can and should be done about home insulation. Although neither programme was perfect, I thought the Green Deal and energy company obligation were steps in the right direction.
However, the Green Deal has now expired and the energy company obligation expires next year. We have been told that it will be reformed and renewed but, as yet, no timeline has been set out by the Government for doing so.
A number of Whitehall departments, including the Department of Health, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Cabinet Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government, have policies which could contribute to reducing excess winter deaths. As yet, there is no overarching cross-government strategy.
It is often left to local authorities to develop their own approach. In Barnsley, my local authority is making a concerted effort to ensure that the vulnerable and the elderly live in warmer homes. The most recent practical example was the council securing funding for a warm homes programme, which offers free central heating replacements for people on low incomes who have no gas central heating system. I recently met one of my constituents, John Key, who had benefited from the scheme. At 84 years old, he had never had gas central heating and had never been able to heat the top floor of his home. Now, thanks to Barnsley Council, he is able to do that.
I am therefore calling for the Government to bring forward a national strategy to reduce excess winter deaths. The strategy should be cross-government and should incorporate the following elements: a clear plan for reducing the number of excess winter deaths, with regular assessments to review the plan’s success; an independent assessment of what additional policies would help to reduce excess winter deaths; and a cross-departmental working group to co-ordinate current policy efforts.
I have also started a petition on Parliament’s petition website so that people across the country can join me in calling for a national strategy.
To conclude, the way in which a society cares for the most vulnerable is an important metric by which any society should seek to be judged. At the moment, given the numbers of people who are dying each year, we as a country are failing that test.
Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central. He led a Commons debate on winter deaths. This is an edited version.