The Scandal of Pensioner Winter Deaths

Chris Jones says we need to tackle the fuel poverty affecting older people in Wales.

Why is society in Wales so prepared to put up with more older people dying in the winter compared to other months of the year?

In 2012/13, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales confirmed that this is the case with 1,900 more deaths in the winter months, with 70% of these attributed to our over 75 year olds. This pattern is repeated year on year.

Why? Because as we age, we become frailer, our bodies are less able to cope with low temperatures and we become more susceptible to respiratory and circulatory illness.

This is backed up by accepted figures in Wales that 140,000 pensioners are in fuel poverty, meaning they need to spend more than 10% of their income on fuel costs.  

“Just turn the heating on”, I hear you say. It’s not as simple as that. With rising energy costs and many older people on a fixed income, many cannot afford to pay their fuel bills…  so they don’t turn on the heating.  Many older people face many difficult decisions, like choosing between eating or heating their home.

Many thousands of older people can’t survive on their state pension or are not claiming the benefits they are entitled to. They have boilers which are old, inefficient and use more fuel. They live in properties which aren’t insulated. They are on an expensive fuel tariff and don’t know how to change provider. They don’t know about the latest government grant scheme that just might be able to help them.

This isn’t good enough. It is clear that the system isn’t working because we still have older people dying in the winter who wouldn’t be dying in other months of the year.

While there are undoubtedly plenty of schemes that could help, there is confusion for older people about where to go and what help they can get, and we are not doing enough to find and help the people who need that help the most.

There have been numerous grant schemes, over many years, such as Home Energy Efficiency Scheme (HEES), Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT), Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP), and now, the NEST and Energy Company Obligation (ECO). There is lots of evidence to suggest that these schemes have helped improve many properties, helped many people on low incomes and reduced carbon emissions, particularly in the social housing sector. Housing associations and local authorities have undoubtedly carried out some great work with energy companies for the benefit of their properties and their tenants.

We now need to focus on the people we haven’t reached. One particularly affected group is low income, older owner occupiers dispersed in urban, suburban and rural areas across all of Wales. Finding these people requires more up front effort and is not as attractive to energy companies who have legal targets on the quantity of carbon emissions they need to reduce, so instead have targeted geographic energy efficiency schemes at scale.

As we head into the winter months and look ahead to the UK elections next year, we believe that the UK and Welsh Governments need a rebalancing of policy focus so that tackling fuel poverty and stopping winter deaths amongst our older people receives as much attention as reducing CO2 emissions.

We need co-ordinated action by government and energy companies to target advice and energy efficiency grants based on specific need of individuals as well as wider need to reduce the carbon footprint.

Chris Jones is Chief Executive of Care & Repair Cymru.

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