Tinker with heating at your peril

13th Jan 2020


One of the slightly morbid, but essential tasks undertaken by public health statisticians is to track mortality rates and weather changes. Usually this is in the form of calculating Excess Winter Deaths but also when we have significant periods of warm weather, deaths caused by heat waves.

Last week it was reported that the 2019 summer heat wave caused an estimated 892 ‘excess deaths’ in England, due to the heat. Most of these occurred during one particularly hot week in July. As always, it is the elderly, very young and those with heart or lung problems who are most at risk. And climate scientists tell us that global warming might increase the frequency of these events, so ventilation and cooling will become more important aspects of energy policy.

What happened in the winter of 2018/19 was also statistically significant. The milder weather, according to the Office of National Statistics, led to a massive fall in the number of excess winter deaths – the figure fell from 49,410 in 2017/18 to 23,200. Once again, the highest peak in daily deaths occurred on the coldest day of the year, 31st January. Again the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are the most at risk.

So what lessons do we draw? Firstly, every single ‘excess death’ is an individual, a family member, and we shouldn’t ignore that. Warmer winters will clearly save thousands of lives in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we should welcome climate change. It should make policymakers even more aware of the consequences of tinkering with energy policy. When a degree or two in temperature can have such a large impact upon death rates, then sensitivity should be the order of the day.

Arguing for carbon taxes on heat, making it more expensive, can have life or death consequences. Making changes to how people heat their homes, without fully understanding what happens in practice, will have serious health impacts. And finally, when the fifth richest country in the world still has over 20,000 cold-weather related deaths a year, something is clearly not right.