Barnsley Chronicle column: The Scandal of Winter Deaths

Every winter elderly people die in Barnsley because they are unable to properly heat their homes – on average there are an extra 116 deaths each year in our town, purely as a result of the cold.

This is an absolute scandal. And completely avoidable.

We are one of the richest countries in the world. Are we really saying that, with our collective wealth, skills and experience, we cannot save the lives of these people?

It is something I have written, spoken and campaigned about for many years and, since being re-elected as the MP for Barnsley Central earlier this month, ‘excess winter deaths’ have been at the forefront of my mind.

Summer may be approaching, and winter may be far from our thoughts. But actually this is the time to start planning for how we as a community will prevent these deaths and look after our most vulnerable.

There is a lot of goodwill in the town, as different people and organisations try and do their bit for those who will face such a life and death decision in the winter months.
But what we need is an effective co-ordinated response, utilising all the tools at our disposal – planned for now, and implemented effectively later this year.

How a society cares for the elderly and most vulnerable is an important yardstick by which we should be judged. It is unacceptable that in modern Britain some of the most vulnerable people in our society are at risk because they can’t afford to heat their homes properly.

This is not just morally wrong. It’s also bad for our country’s finances. It is estimated that cold homes cost the NHS £850 million every year. This is money that could be used for life-saving surgery, cancer research, emergency centres and other essential services.

Looking around the world, countries that suffer more severe winters than us often have fewer excess winter deaths. Finland, for example, experiences Arctic winters but has the lowest rate of excess winter death in Europe.

I will be meeting with the new Director for Public Health in Barnsley next week and will be seeking assurances that this winter in Barnsley we effectively harness our collective efforts to do everything we can to avoid any more of these unnecessary deaths.

The elderly men and women who die worked hard contributing to our society on the understanding that they would be cared for if the need arose, and they deserve far better treatment than this.

This article was first published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 29 May 2015.

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