Extreme summer temperatures will, in five years’ time, cause the deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, according to a new government report. And that is on top of the 2,000 people a year who currently die from heat-related illness in Britain.
The stark warning, contained in the new Heatwave Plan for England released by Public Health England (PHE) and the NHS earlier this month, comes as the Meteorological Office starts 24-hour monitoring for signs of a heatwave. From 1 June, a team of weather experts will issue daily alerts on the chances of one striking the UK.
The annual heat-health watch, which continues until mid-September, began in 2004. Higher levels of air pollution during heatwaves, as well as the extra stress on the body as it tries to stay cool, can have deadly effects on vulnerable people, including the very young, elderly, and the sick. Hospital patients with chronic and severe illness are among those particularly at risk.
Yet more than a decade after the emergency plans for predicting heatwaves were introduced – and after a heatwave in 2003 led to 2,000 British deaths – 90 per cent of hospital wards are still prone to overheating and have a limited ability to control temperatures, according to the Committee on Climate Change.
The Government’s new heatwave plan, citing the latest UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, warns: “There is high confidence that heat-related deaths will increase to between 130 to 1,700 a year by the 2020s.”
It adds: “Unless we take steps now to plan for the longer-term changes we will not be prepared.” And it admits: “Healthcare provision may also be affected by heatwaves if temperatures in hospital wards, care homes and medicine stores are not effectively controlled, affecting both patient recovery and the performance of staff.”
Under the alert system starting on 1 June, warnings of impending heatwaves are triggered when the average threshold temperature reaches 30C during the day and 15C overnight for two days running. A series of alert levels are in place, from the current level, one, to the maximum, four, when a prolonged hot spell becomes “severe”.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer, writing in the foreword to the heatwave plan, says: “As a result of climate change we are increasingly likely to experience extreme summer temperatures that may be harmful to health.” She adds that the dangerous temperatures reached in 2003 “are likely to be a ‘normal’ summer by 2040”.
Within the next five years, “high temperatures during a heatwave may require affected wards to move patients to cooler areas” and see stocks of medicines and food “adversely affected”. Most drugs degrade if not kept at room temperature or below, and higher temperatures also increase the risk of food poisoning occurring, according to the report.
Hospitals and care homes should create cool areas that can be kept below 26C, the report says. They also need to have “cooling green spaces” with more trees and water features. Car parks should not be made bigger at the expense of green spaces, and trees should be planted around them and even “on top of multi-storey car parks”. Buildings should be well insulated, to help “reduce heat build-up”, and cooled by ventilation through vents or windows at night. The report also observes that “reflective paint may help on south-facing walls and roofs”.
And within the next five years, public health directors should continue to work with local authorities and social care services “to identify vulnerable populations and geographical areas to target long-term planning and interventions”.
In the longer term – within the next 30 years – we should be building “zero- carbon” hospitals with underground car parks, and more green space and water surrounding buildings, says the report.
In a statement last night, Dr Jill Meara, director of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, said: “PHE is aware overheating in hospitals may be an issue and research on the scale and impacts of this is under way.”
Professor Dame Anne Johnson, a member of the Committee on Climate Change said: “We welcome the new heatwave plan and believe it’s a key part of the Government’s response to the growing impacts of heat on health.”
But she added: “This plan is not a long-term solution on its own. More needs to be done to protect people from heat extremes through improved building design and better uptake of passive cooling in homes – such as natural ventilation and building shades.”
Deaths could soar in the decades to come, she warned. “Without comprehensive, long-term action, heat-related deaths could treble to 7,000 per year by the 2050s as average temperatures rise, combined with the UK’s ageing population.”
Last year was the warmest in Britain since records began in 1659. Temperatures in the south of England reached 30C, and in Scotland they rose to 28C. But temperatures did not stay high enough for long enough to trigger alarms, with only one heatwave warning issued, affecting the Midlands, eastern England, southeastern England and London.
In contrast, a prolonged hot spell in 2003 resulted in 13 heatwave warnings issued by the Met Office, with all regions affected with the exception of northeast England.
It is not yet known how hot Britain will be this summer, but temperatures were in the twenties last month, and highs of around 28C – two degrees below the heatwave threshold for most parts of Britain – are expected by July.
Despite all the warnings and recommendations, little over half of NHS providers have an adaptation plan in place, according to the NHS/PHE-funded Sustainable Development Unit.Reuse content