The number of deaths during the coldest three months of the year were up almost 50 per cent on the previous year to 36,700, sending an extra 10,000 pensioners to early graves, new figures showed yesterday.
The rise in "excess winter mortality" for England and Wales for the three months to February was the biggest for years and the highest total in a decade, sparking fresh calls for ministers to combat high energy prices.
In its campaign against the Great Energy Rip-off, The Independent is calling for a 10 per cent cut in fuel prices and powers for the regulator to take action against suppliers who fail to pass on lower wholesale costs.
Announcing the latest figures, the Office of National Statistics pointed out that seasonal flu last winter had been "moderate" but temperatures had been the coldest since 2005. Campaigners said a 40 per cent spike in the price of gas and electricity to £1,310 had exacerbated the situation.
As fuel bills have soared over the past six years, the number of households in "fuel poverty" – defined as having to spend 10 per cent or more of their income on power and heat – has risen five-fold to 6.6 million this year.
Britain has a worse record on winter deaths than colder European states such as Sweden, Norway and Finland. Age Concern, the charity for the elderly, warned that unless heating was made more affordable, further large-scale deaths would occur this winter.
"To end this national scandal, the Government must do much more to tackle fuel poverty," said Andrew Harrop, its head of policy. According to Age Concern's polling, four in 10 pensioners will not be able to afford to switch on gas and electricity when they want to this winter. Released in November, the Excess Winter Mortality figures for the preceding winter show the increase in the number of deaths in England and Wales over the coldest three months compared with the rest of the year.
Last winter more than 90 per cent of deaths were pensioners, who are among the least able to afford heat but the most vulnerable to cold-related disease, such as seasonal flu, hypothermia, bronchitis and emphysema.
Unlike the spike in winter deaths in 1999/2000 when a surge in flu caused almost 50,000 extra deaths, last winter's flu was within normal parameters, despite arriving earlier than usual. Figures from the Met Office showed that last winter was the coldest for a decade, at 3.C, half a degree lower than usual.
A Department of Health 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."
Angela Eagle, the Minister for Pensions and the Ageing Society, said winter payments had been increased for households with a person aged 60 to 79 by £50 to £250, and for households with even older members by £100 to £400.
"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," she said.
However, the Conservatives pointed out that the Department for Energy is halving the budget for the Warm Front Scheme, which funds insulation and heating improvements, from £400m in 2008-09 to £200m in 2010-11.
Fuel poverty charity National Energy Action warned that a lethal combination of low incomes, high bills and poor insulation would continue to pose a serious threat to the health of millions of people.
Dot Gibson, general secretary of the National Pensioners' Convention, said: "Since 1997, we have lost over 260,000 pensioners during the winter because of cold-related illnesses, yet the Government seems incapable of acting. No other section of our society is so vulnerable and treated so badly. Pensioners see rising fuel bills and are constantly worried about whether or not they can afford to put their heating on."
Jonathan Stearn, energy expert for Consumer Focus, said: "The Government needs to urgently revise its fuel poverty strategy and introduce energy efficiency measures that will lift the most vulnerable households out of fuel poverty."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies