Fuel poverty in Britain has been branded an “epidemic” that is “entirely preventable,” by a new study that revealed more than 3,000 people are dying every year because they can’t afford to heat their homes.
According to the study, by charity National Energy Action (NEA) and climate change charity E3G, the UK has the second-worst rate of excess deaths in winter in Europe — topped only by Ireland.
“The UK has one of the worst records on cold homes-related deaths in Europe and it is not only a public health tragedy, it is a national embarrassment,” said Pedro Guertler, of E3G, who co-authored the research.
E3G and NEA are calling on the government to reinstate public capital investment in the energy efficiency of homes to fix the “crisis.”
“As well as ending needless suffering and premature deaths, it would also address a wide range of national infrastructure priorities,” added Guertler, who said that UK homes are among the least energy-efficient in Europe.
The study found that preventing fuel poverty would also help the UK meet its carbon-reduction targets, improve air quality, and reduce the UK’s reliance on foreign gas imports.
In the last five-year period, 168,000 excess winter deaths have been recorded in the UK, according to the study. Of these, 17,000 are a direct result of fuel poverty. A further 36,000 are attributable to conditions related to living in a cold home.
The number is similar to those who die annually from prostate cancer or breast cancer, according to the report.
And with a “polar vortex” set to hit the UK next week, bringing with it freezing temperatures, the issue is becoming increasingly urgent.
“As the UK experiences one of the harshest winters for several years, it is important to remember that this causes needless hardship, places health at risk, and leads to premature death,” said Peter Smith, director of policy and research at NEA, who co-authored the report.
“Beyond the terrible scale of cold-related winter deaths, people experiencing fuel poverty can also struggle with poor mental health and this can sadly lead to total social isolation and even suicide,” Smith added. “This preventable tragedy must end.”
The report, which was released to coincide with Fuel Poverty Awareness Day on Friday, looked at fatality numbers between December and March, compared to rest of the year, across 30 countries over five years.
It found that the UK has the sixth-worst, long-term rate of excess winter deaths. But, when taking into account cold weather beyond just the winter months, the UK ranks second-worst overall.
Other nations in Europe which ranked poorly in the report included Malta, Portugal, Cyprus, and Spain.
The number of homes being insulated each year has fallen by 90% since 2012, according to the report, which called on the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy to commit to making sure all low-income homes have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) of at least level C by 2030.
“There is now a large gap between action to deliver warm and efficient homes, and the ambition to do so, which needs to be urgently filled,” said the report.
According to the authors, the impact of a cold home can also provoke poor physical health and loneliness, as well as putting the NHS under added strain. Age UK estimated in a 2012 study that cold homes cost the NHS £1.4 billion every year.
Among older people, living in cold conditions can increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as falls and injuries.
For children, living in the cold can increase the risk of being admitted to hospital or primary care facilities by 30%. And children living in cold homes are three times more likely to suffer from coughing, wheezing, or respiratory illness.
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on health and well-being, by promoting healthy lifestyles, preventative measures, and modern, efficient healthcare for everyone. You can join us by taking action on these issues here.