Today’s columnist, John Bryson: Everyone should be warm

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It may have passed many people by but recently the figures were released for “excess winter deaths” in England and Wales which was 43,900 for the 2014/15 winter.

To help understand what that means this is the additional number of people who died between December and March compared with the four months before and after.

Four out of five of those deaths were people over the age of 75 and most of them were associated with respiratory diseases.

While much has been made of a fairly ineffective flu vaccine little has been said about a more fundamental contributory factor which is people living in cold homes.

Some of you might be surprised to hear that this rate of additional deaths is much higher in this country than most North European countries where they suffer much more severe winter weather conditions.

It is hard for me to understand why there is not a public outcry about these deaths as many of them could be avoided.

Personally, I think it is a national disgrace that we allow so many older vulnerable to die like this as we are supposed to be a developed modern country.

What is more the 43,900 is just a headline figure because there are thousands more people who might survive but only after medical assistance with many having to have a spell in hospital receiving intensive treatment.

The cost of this to the NHS is enormous, millions of pounds annually being expended, so wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid this by investing more to ensure that everyone is provided with a basic standard of warmth and shelter?

As an environmental health practitioner I have always believed that prevention is better than cure.

The reasons why people are living in cold homes are varied but include inadequate or ineffective heating systems, inadequately insulated dwellings, fuel poverty (where they cannot afford the energy costs) and lack of understanding of how to use their heating system to best effect.

In theory it should not be that difficult to rectify most of these but in practice it is not that simple.

Regrettably, some of the schemes that existed to help vulnerable and/or older people provide basic central heating systems disappeared when the Government decided to make major cutbacks to public spending.

There is still some assistance out there to provide basic insulation as the energy companies must offer advice and assistance to consumers who are in receipt of certain benefits and/or tax credits. Some local authorities, like Sheffield City Council, provide free wall and loft insulations schemes.

Fuel poverty is defined as where a household is said to be when its members cannot afford to keep adequately warm at a reasonable cost, given their income.

You are eligible for the winter fuel allowance if you were born on or before January 5, 1953 and most of those who are will probably have received payment for this winter.

However, the reality for some is that given all their other household costs the choice facing them might be to ‘eat or heat’.

There is also a cold weather payment that can be claimed by people on certain benefits and this is where you will get a payment if the temperature in your area is recorded as, or forecast to be, 0C or below for seven consecutive days.

That brings me to my final point which is about ensuring that householders know how to get the best out of their existing heating system.

Far too many householders do not have a clear understanding of how to set up their system so they get adequate warmth but do not unnecessarily waste heat. This involves correct use of the timer, thermostat and (where provided) the thermostatic radiator valves.

In conclusion, while there may be quite a few vulnerable people who can understand all of this and the point of it there are far too many who cannot – particularly if they suffer from conditions such as dementia.

This is where those of us who are able need to help those who are less able. Whether it is an elderly relative or neighbour let us try to make sure that they are safe and warm this winter so we can do something to reduce the number of unnecessary deaths for this winter.

It is unseasonably mild just now but that won’t last, so don’t put it off.

If you need some good basic information then the Keep warm keep well booklet is very useful.