By Steve Heldon
The UK could face a “humanitarian crisis” of ill-health, excess deaths and rising inequality if the government does not take urgent action over energy bills, NHS leaders have said, in a highly unusual intervention.
Writing to the chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, the NHS Confederation said failing to act would pile yet more pressure on stretched health services, as poverty, cold and missed meals pushed up rates of sickness, which could increase the number of winter deaths.
The organisation, which represents the health service across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said that while it was very rare for an NHS body to intervene in cost of living issues, there was a risk of severe and long-term damage to children’s life chances, further widening stark health inequalities.
The next increase in the energy price cap, which sets the maximum sum energy providers can charge customers, is expected to be announced in a week, with estimates suggesting it could rise from just under £2,000 now to about £4,200 for the average household. Last October it was set at £1,400.
A study released earlier this week estimated that by January, two-thirds of all UK households will face fuel poverty, which means energy costs exceed 10% of a household’s net income. For pensioner couples this would rise to 86.4%, and to 90.4% for single parents with two or more children.
So far, ministers have offered a blanket £400 grant, with some extra help for poorer households. But with Boris Johnson departing as prime minister in just over a fortnight, any further measures would be up his successor, either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.
The NHS warning piles pressure on the new prime minister to pledge more help, or to mirror plans proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to freeze bills at the current price cap. Sunak has promised to reduce VAT on bills, while Truss’s main offer is a national insurance cut, which would disproportionately help wealthier people.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the forecast rise in energy bills would come as the health service was already “likely to experience the most difficult winter on record”.
He said: “The country is facing a humanitarian crisis. Many people could face the awful choice between skipping meals to heat their homes and having to live in cold, damp and very unpleasant conditions. This, in turn, could lead to outbreaks of illness and sickness around the country and widen health inequalities, worsen children’s life chances and leave an indelible scar on local communities.
“NHS leaders have made this unprecedented intervention as they know that fuel poverty will inevitably lead to significant extra demand on what are already very fragile services. Health leaders are clear that unless urgent action is taken by the government, this will cause a public health emergency.”
The confederation said that as well as greater levels of sickness, such mass fuel poverty was likely to “increase the already high number of annual deaths associated with cold homes”. It feared it would also affect mental health.
A number of charities have already expressed concern about the impact of rising energy bills. Katie Schmuecker, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said the letter from NHS leaders “hammers home the fact that the rising cost of living is a national emergency”.
She said: “The rising price of essentials are a huge threat to health. It’s morally indefensible that already people in some parts of the UK die years earlier than they should, and we can not allow this injustice to be made worse this winter. Not being able to afford a warm home and healthy food causes untold stress and anxiety. It also affects physical health due to a lack of nutrition and infectious diseases made worse by the cold.”
The UK already has high health inequalities between income brackets and regions, with a study released earlier this week finding that a 60-year-old woman in England’s poorest areas typically has the same level of illness as a woman 16 years her senior in the richest regions.
The Health Foundation thinktank found a smaller, but nonetheless stark, 10-year gap in such health outcomes for men.
Source: Healthy Duck.