Department of Health

Get ready for winter

Press Release   •   Nov 01, 2011 10:08 GMT

Government, Age UK and Met Office launch plans to keep people warm and healthy in the cold weather

A new plan to keep people warm and healthy throughout the cold winter months was launched today by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.

The cross Government initiative comes today - the official start of winter - and reminds all local communities and the NHS how best to prepare to keep people healthy and warm in their homes this winter. The schemes focus on helping the most vulnerable people by:

• making an extra £10 million available to support existing Government schemes for those at risk of fuel poverty - for example grants for insulation or heating improvements provided through the Warm Front scheme;
• creating a new £20 million fund - supported by Age UK - for local authorities and charities to address cold housing. Bids will be invited for innovative new ways to help vulnerable older people, people with disabilities or families with young children - reaching those falling through the gaps of existing schemes.
• launching a Cold Weather Plan - which will be jointly run with the Met Office and Health Protection Agency - to advise people how to stay healthy thus relieving the pressures on the NHS which winter always brings; and
• providing information on all aspects of keeping safe and well in winter via the “Getting Ready for Winter” website www.direct.gov.uk/getreadyforwinter

If the £10 million were used to support Warm Front it would be expected that around 5000 low income households would get improvement to heating and insulation worth up to £3,500 (£6,000 where oil central heating and other alternative technologies are recommended).

The new £20 million scheme for energy efficiency insulation and heating improvement could help around 10,000 households.

Severe cold weather can be dangerous for vulnerable groups such as older people and those with serious illnesses. It’s important for people to look after their health as the winter months can mean:

• an increase in heart attacks and stroke – accounting for 40 per cent of excess winter deaths;
• pressure on GPs - GP visits for respiratory illnesses increase by up to 19 per cent for every 1°C drop below 5°C of the mean temperature;
• more pressure on the NHS - in 2009/10, the cost of emergency admissions due to falls on snow and ice was estimated at £42million; and
• it is estimated that over £850 million is spent by the NHS each year as a result of the impact of cold housing on people’s health.

Met Office figures show that December 2010 was the coldest December in the UK since 1910 and the winter before was the coldest since 1978. While many associate cold weather with hypothermia, deaths directly caused by this represent only a small proportion.

Andrew Lansley said:

“We want everyone to get ready for winter and be prepared before temperatures drop.

“Being cold in your own home can be miserable and impacts on your health. We cannot look at health in isolation. We must look at the bigger picture, which is why I am making £30 million available to help keep homes warm.

“Older people and those with long term illnesses are particularly vulnerable to the cold and we need to be aware - within families, in communities and across the NHS - of how we can help others when the winter temperatures drop.
“Every year, there is a 20 per cent increase in deaths in the winter in England. By working together, this coordinated plan will help protect those most in need, we are determined to do all we can to achieve this.”

Michelle Mitchell, Charity Director at Age UK says:

"We warmly welcome the fact that the Department of Health now recognises that cold weather and fuel poverty cause avoidable illness which leads to distress for older people affected as well as adding to the workload of all healthcare providers. Ministers have long acknowledged the fact that every winter brings thousands of avoidable deaths.

"The Coalition Government has set a new emphasis on public health as one of its key objectives, and this Cold Weather Plan is a very important step in the right direction. Age UK will be building on this with its own winter campaign to help vulnerable older people live well through the cold months of the year."

The Cold Weather Plan is supported by a Met Office cold weather alert service that will run from 1 November 2011 to 31 March 2012.

The Cold Weather alert service has four levels that depend on the severity of conditions. Together the plan and alerts aim to prepare, alert and prevent the effects of winter weather on people’s health by helping keep people well.

The four levels are:
• Level 1 winter preparedness – long term planning
• Level 2 severe winter weather is forecast – 60 per cent risk of extreme cold lasting more than 48 hours
• Level 3 response to severe winter weather – we are experiencing severe weather which is expected to have an impact on peoples health and health services
• Level 4 major incident – exceptional widespread winter weather causing disruptions

The ‘big freeze' at the end of last year would have been classified as level 3 .

Further details of the action needed at each level can be found at http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/health/public/coldweatherwarnings

Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said:

“Keeping warm in the winter is important to avoid serious or life-threatening illnesses.

“Healthcare staff and care home managers need to make sure that patients and residents are able to keep warm during cold weather spells.

“Keeping our homes warm is important – but it’s not necessary to heat the whole house. We just need to keep the main rooms we occupy – such as the living room and bedroom – warm. Warm clothing and hot drinks should help prevent our most vulnerable people falling ill this winter.”

John Hirst, Chief Executive of the Met Office, said:

“The Met Office is proud to be able to support the Department of Health, the Health Protection Agency and Age UK with their winter preparedness.

“These alerts will put everyone in a better position to respond to forecasts of severe weather, inform those who are most at risk from winter weather and what they can do to keep well.”

Professor Virginia Murray of the Health Protection Agency said:

“Many of the deaths and injuries due to cold weather are preventable. People most at risk should make sure they have their flu jabs, and everyone should wear sufficient layers of clothing and shoes or boots with non-slip soles while outside. They should also have enough of their medication in the event of severe weather.

“People should have their fossil fuel and wood burning appliances such as boilers, heaters and cookers, regularly checked by an appropriately registered engineer. Poorly maintained appliances may release carbon monoxide, a gas which can kill at high levels and cause health problems at lower levels.”