Why are 9,000 annual cold home deaths met with such a shrug of indifference?
Widespread media coverage has been detailing the death of Barbara Bolton who was found by her grandson slumped at her kitchen table and unable to speak because of profound hypothermia.
Our national indifference to this terrible scene happening in thousands of cold homes across the country every winter is shocking, writes our Chief Executive Dr Carole Easton OBE.
This week, we learned more details about the heart-breaking last few weeks of Barbara Bolton – an 87-year-old great-grandmother from Bury who died from hypothermia after raising fears with her doctor that she could not afford to heat her home. Mrs Bolton, who only retired from her job as a pharmacy assistant five years earlier, was reportedly fixated with the worry of putting her heating on because of fears about incurring high energy bills. Medics found Mrs Bolton had a body temperature of just 28C, compared with the normal 37C.
In recording a conclusion of misadventure, the coroner described Mrs Bolton as “a remarkable woman”. And yet what is telling from this case is that, despite almost all of the national newspapers covering the details of her inquest, the circumstances of Mrs Bolton’s death were distinctly unremarkable.
The fact is that roughly 9,000 people who die in cold homes in England and Wales every year, many in similar circumstances to Mrs Bolton.
That’s 24 people on average every day, although in reality you could probably double that daily rate as this is an issue confined to the winter months. Every one of these deaths is a national tragedy and a source of national shame.
Why is this not the source for greater outrage? A loss of life on such a scale in a wealthy nation for the lack of the basic human right of a warm and safe home. Is it because this figure isn’t widely known? Is it a lack of empathy? Is it a lack of imagination that things could be any different?
These are avoidable deaths. The avoidable deaths of 9,000 grandmothers, grandfathers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, neighbours, friends, work colleagues. How can we just sit on our hands as a nation and simply accept that this is the way things are?
We owe it to the 9,000 families who lost loved ones this winter to cold homes, and the 9,000 families set to suffer the same fate next winter, that meaningful change is coming urgently.
I don’t accept it and we at Ageing Better are focused on trying to change this horrific reality. It is why I was driven to such frustration that the government’s recently-billed ‘Green Day’ ultimately failed to deliver on its early promise and significantly failed to deliver any new action on, or funding for, insulation and energy efficiency of homes.
This winter’s cost-of-living crisis has brought home to many how precarious and uncertain something as simple as being able to keep their own home safe and warm really is. Many will have heated their home to a degree they could afford, not to a level which kept themselves and their loved ones warm and well. Millions of people will have shared the same level of fear and dread around the cost of heating their home that Mrs Bolton felt. Almost three in four 55-64-year-olds reduced their energy use this winter because of the cost and almost half found it difficult to pay their bills. For many, the limited financial assistance given by the government would have offered little comfort while a belated public information campaign on how to help reduce energy costs was too little, too late.
Now the winter is drawing to a close and gas prices are very slowly heading downwards, the issue of cold homes has dropped from the media and political landscape to be replaced by the next crisis. But the lessons from this winter; the misery, the mental anguish, the physical deterioration, the loss of life, should not be forgotten. We need an urgent and large-scale response to fix the problem for good. Not just a sticking plaster solution again next winter which tolerates 9,000 avoidable deaths as business as usual and disaster averted.
The UK’s homes are the oldest and least energy efficient in Europe. Heat flows out of a UK home at three times the rate of a home in Germany. More than 40% of the nation’s 15 million homes with an energy rating of D or below are headed by a single person or couple aged over 60. We need an ambitious home improvement strategy to fix our poor housing stock and make the nation’s homes safe and warm for all.
We can only hope that the government’s new commitment to consult on improving the energy efficiency of owner-occupied homes by the end of this year is the precursor to ambitious policymaking that will end this dreadful annual death toll. We owe it to the 9,000 families who lost loved ones this winter to cold homes, and the 9,000 families set to suffer the same fate next winter, that meaningful change is coming urgently.