Let’s help those most at risk sur­vive the win­ter

Western Daily Press (Saturday) - - Wdp 2 / Agenda / Letters / Opinion -

Justin Sar­gent, chief ex­ec­u­tive at Som­er­set Com­mu­nity Foun­da­tion, says it has never been more vi­tal to sup­port the Sur­viv­ing Win­ter cam­paign

PER­HAPS at any other time, the 32,000 ‘ex­cess win­ter deaths’ in the win­ter of 2016/17 - which is the high­est since the mid-1970s - would have at­tracted far more at­ten­tion than it did last week. So, it is worth re­peat­ing: 32,000 ex­cess win­ter deaths.

Bring­ing this closer to home, here in Som­er­set, re­cent Gov­ern­ment fig­ures re­veal there are on av­er­age 440 ex­cess win­ter deaths each win­ter, mainly af­fect­ing older peo­ple. That is the equiv­a­lent of the pop­u­la­tion of a small vil­lage. Of course, that is not where it ends. For ev­ery ex­cess win- ter death there are dozens of peo­ple strug­gling in fuel poverty and in poor health who suf­fer great hard­ship.

While 2016/17 may have been an ex­cep­tional peak, the fact is that the UK has, on a like-for-like ba­sis, the sec­ond high­est rate of win­ter mor­tal­ity out of 30 Euro­pean coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to anal­y­sis car­ried out by E3G and Na­tional En­ergy Ac­tion.

It is a record we should be thor­oughly ashamed of, par­tic­u­larly as the Gov­ern­ment’s Chief Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer in 2010 ar­gued that many of these deaths, and by ex­ten­sion the suf­fer­ing and hard­ship, are pre­ventable.

While I would not for one minute pre­tend that the fac­tors con­tribut­ing to these win­ter deaths are any­thing other than com­plex, surely in one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world we can do some­thing to en­sure peo­ple do not have to live in cold homes un­nec­es­sar­ily.

Apart from the hu­man suf­fer­ing, the cost of cold homes to the Gov­ern­ment has been es­ti­mated to be £1.36 bil­lion each year. We know that the type of old houses in ru­ral ar­eas are dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive to keep warm and in­su­lated.

Al­most 50 per cent of Som­er­set’s pop­u­la­tion is ru­ral, and many of these prop­er­ties rely on more ex­pen­sive sources of en­ergy, such as heat­ing oil or LPG. Per­haps it is not sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that in 2016/17, the av­er­age ex­cess win­ter deaths were 25 per cent higher in Som­er­set than the av­er­ages across the rest of the South West.

I am not naïve enough to think this will be solved overnight. It re­quires con­certed and co-or­di­nated ac­tion across Gov­ern­ment at all lev­els, and there are many or­gan­i­sa­tions cam­paign­ing on just that point. Just as we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to pay our taxes to en­able the Gov­ern­ment to do its job, though, do we not also have a re­spon­si­bil­ity as mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties? Some­times it is the lit­tle ac­tions that make the big­gest dif­fer­ence.

We are much more aware of lone­li­ness and mental health these days, but both can be ex­ac­er­bated by cold

The UK has the sec­ond high­est rate of win­ter mor­tal­ity out of 30 Euro­pean

coun­tries

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