A Quiet Crisis

Last week the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that over the course of winter last year a staggering 24,300 people died from mostly preventable causes.

Over the last 5 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 the combined population of both the Barnsley Central and Barnsley East constituencies.

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. 

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.

The mark of a civilized society is how we treat our older citizens. This is a problem we can – and must – solve, but it’s also a problem that no government has paid enough attention to.

The government has responded to my criticism 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.

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.

Here in Barnsley, the council is trying to tackle the alarming fact that over 11,500 of households across the borough live in fuel poverty. It recently won funding for its Stay Warm & Well This Winter campaign and is bringing together a range of organisations to support people living in fuel poverty. The campaign will be launched next week – on Friday 9 December at the Better Barnsley shop in town, from 10am until 3pm.

The bulk of responsibility for tackling these issues, however, lies with government. 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. 

This article was first published in the Barnsley Chronicle.

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