The Office for National Statistics (ONS) released a health and social care statistical bulletin last month, showing a shocking increase in ‘excess winter mortality’ last winter and a projection of figures for 2015/16.
In 2014/15 there was a 151% rise in excess winter deaths in England and Wales, which represents the highest yearly increase since 1999/00.
Excess deaths in winter (EWD) continue to be an important public health issue in the UK, potentially amenable to effective interventions.
This excess mortality is highest in both relative and absolute terms in elderly people and for certain disease groups. It also varies from area to area. EWD are also associated with cold weather.
However, it has been observed that other countries in Europe, especially the colder Scandinavian countries have relatively fewer excess winter deaths in winter compared to the UK.
Elderly people, individuals with low incomes (up to 9 million people in the UK live in fuel poverty), sick and disable people, those with mental health problems, babies and children under five, and pregnant women are considered vulnerable when the outside temperature drops below 6°C.
Not all people living in fuel poverty are claiming social security benefits, or are of pension age. In fact, a study last winter found that half of households living in fuel poverty in the UK had someone in work.
The ineffective influenza vaccine was partly blamed for some of the increase over the 2014-15 period. The flu vaccine was quoted to have quite a low effectiveness, between 3% or 4%. By the end of the period it was quoted at 34%, but that is still below what we would expect, which is at least 50% effectiveness.
However, most people offered the ‘flu vaccine are also offered a pneumonia vaccine. Pneumonia, a respiratory disease, is a complication of ‘flu that is the biggest cause of mortality.
But pneumonia is a complication of other illnesses, too. People are much more susceptible to pneumonia when they are also malnourished and living in poverty. And the category “respiratory disease” includes asthma, bronchitis and a range of other illnesses.
The ‘flu vaccine’s efficacy is really something of a red herring. Respiratory disease is always a major cause of death in the UK and research shows consistently that it is more likely to be correlated with poverty than an ineffective flu vaccine.
Janet Morrison, the chief executive of the charity Independent Age, described the figures as shocking.
“Even discounting the impact of the flu, the figures are still far higher than in previous years”, she said.
“Councils, the government and energy companies need to help with things like insulating homes and assistance with energy bills for vulnerable customers.
“But there are also simple things we can all do like checking on our frail and elderly family and neighbours in cold weather. And making sure they are able to take up their flu vaccination, wrap up warm and eat well.”
There were more excess winter deaths in women than men, as is the case over previous years. Male excess winter deaths increased from 7,210 to 18,400, and female deaths from 10,250 to 25,500 between 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Main points from the ONS Bulletin:
- An estimated 43,900 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in 2014/15; the highest number since 1999/00, with 27% more people dying in the winter months compared with the non-winter months.
- The majority of deaths occurred among people aged 75 and over; there were an estimated 36,300 excess winter deaths in this age group in 2014/15, compared with 7,700 in people aged under 75.
- There were more excess winter deaths in females than in males in 2014/15, as in previous years. Male excess winter deaths increased from 7,210 to 18,400, and female deaths from 10,250 to 25,500 between 2013/14 and 2014/15.
- Respiratory diseases were the underlying cause of death in more than a third of all excess winter deaths in 2014/15.
- The excess winter mortality index was highest in the South West in 2014/15 and joint lowest in Yorkshire and The Humber, and Wales.
Last month, David Cameron dismissed questions from Jeremy Corbyn about a looming winter crisis in the NHS, and the impact of the proposed cuts to tax credits, by mocking Labour’s apparent move to the left under the new leader.
The prime minister declined an invitation from Corbyn to guarantee that the NHS will avoid a winter crisis this year, and instead joked that he would award the Labour leader “full Marx” for creating his own winter crisis in his party.
Cameron has a nasty habit of trivialising and diverting attention from what are often serious life and death issues for many of our most vulnerable UK citizens.
This article was last edited at 16:45 on Saturday 12 December 2015.