Winter deaths rise 'a national scandal'

The highest winter deaths figures in almost 10 years should act as a "deafening wake-up call" for the Government, charities said today

There were an extra 36,700 deaths in England and Wales from December 2008 to March 2009, compared with the average for non-winter periods, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed.

This was the highest number since the winter of 1999/2000 and a rise of 49% compared with 2007/08.

Andrew Harrop, head of policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: "It is a national scandal that the UK has more older people dying in winter, compared to the rest of the year, than countries with more severe weather, such as Sweden and Finland.

"Excess winter deaths of older people have remained stubbornly high in recent years, but last winter's huge spike sounds a deafening wake-up call about the older population's well-being if we have another cold snap.

"To end this national scandal, the Government must do much more to tackle fuel poverty, which currently affects one in three older households."

Fuel poverty charity National Energy Action (NEA) warned that a combination of high energy prices, low incomes and poor insulation will continue to pose a serious threat to the health of millions of people, especially pensioners, during the coming months.

Jenny Saunders, NEA chief executive, said: "The Government needs to step up action that will end these shameful statistics and comprehensibly tackle fuel poverty in the UK."

The winter of 2008/9 had the coldest average winter temperature since 2005/6, one of the factors which affects the number of so-called excess winter deaths, an ONS spokesman said.

He added that the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said influenza activity started early and reached moderate levels during the winter of 2008/9.

Temperature and levels of disease in the population are two of the key factors which contribute to the number of deaths.

The greatest number of excess winter deaths occurred in people aged over 85, the ONS figures showed.

Women accounted for the highest number of excess winter deaths, a fact mostly explained by the higher number of women than men aged over 85, the ONS said.

There were 21,400 excess winter deaths in women and 15,300 in men in the winter of 2008/9, the ONS said.

But the largest increase - 59% - was in men aged 75 to 84, with the overall rate for men 44% higher than the previous year.

Among women, the overall rate increased by 52% compared with 2007/8.

A Department of Health (DH) spokesman said: "The causes of excess winter deaths are very complex. Last year was a colder than average winter, which explains some of the extra deaths seen.

"The 'Keep Warm, Keep Well' campaign offers important advice to older people on how to stay fit and healthy through the winter and our seasonal flu vaccination programme is one of the most successful in Europe.

"The DH is working in partnership with DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and Warm Front to increase the uptake of grants to improve heating systems, insulation and increase the uptake of benefits for those whose health is most likely to be affected by cold weather and fuel poverty."

The NEA called for an extension of the winter fuel payments "to include other vulnerable households and not just those who are over 60".

It also urged the Government to increase the budget for the Warm Front Scheme - which provides a package of insulation and heating improvements up to the value of £3,500 - to £530 million next year.

Ms Saunders said: "As it stands, the budget for 2010 is set to be cut back by around 50% on this year's budget.

"I urge the Chancellor in his Pre-Budget Report on December 9 to increase support for the life-saving heating and insulation measures available to low income households under this flagship programme.

"People need to be aware of the help that is available to them through the various grants and schemes from DECC, energy companies and our own Warm Zones where we have established these with local authorities.

"Pensioners in particular are often anxious to avoid debt and turn their heating down or even off, often unaware that they are putting their health in danger."

She said there were more than five million households who cannot afford to heat their homes, putting them at risk of serious health problems like heart disease, strokes, respiratory illnesses - such as asthma and bronchitis - and exacerbating common ailments like colds and flu.

She added that the increase in excess winter deaths was "sadly expected but remains extremely worrying".

Excess deaths were significantly higher in 2008/09 than in the previous two winters for all regions, except the north-east of England, the ONS figures showed.

The number of deaths jumped by more than 70% in Wales - where the figures rose from 1,440 in 2007/08 to 2,500 in 2008/09 - and in south-east England, where the figures rose from 3,520 in 2007/08 to 6,000 in 2008/9.

Angela Eagle, the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society, said: "I don't want any older people to be afraid to turn up their heating in winter.

"Real help with fuel bills is available and I want to ensure everyone gets what they are entitled to. That's why we repeated the increased Winter Fuel and Cold Weather payments again this year."

She said the payments for winter 2009/10 had increased to £250 from £200 for households with someone aged 60-79 and to £400 from £300 for households with someone aged 80 or over.

An extra £25 a week in Cold Weather payments is also available in prolonged cold snaps for the most vulnerable pensioners, she said.

"They can give piece of mind during the colder months," Ms Eagle said.

Later, a Department of Health spokesman added: "Every year the NHS prepares for winter, but this year has seen unprecedented planning to respond to the potentially difficult winter ahead."