Why fuel poverty gets me hot under the collar…

“Some things in life are bad
They can really make you sad
Other things just make you swear and curse…”

What makes you mad? I’m usually fairly equable until something gets my goat, and then I’m off on one. Usually it’s because of someone’s pigheadedness… when a little rationality and bigger thinking could solve so much.

First witness for the prosecution: 31,000 excess winter deaths last year. That’s like wiping a small town off the map.

31,000 families left to grieve for someone who might still be here today. To put it into context, it’s ten 9/11s, and more than ten times the annual death toll on our roads.

And no, it doesn’t happen in colder countries like Sweden…

I’ve been reporting on excess winter deaths for years now, and every time there’s an official wringing of hands, and we swiftly move on to other stories until the next year.

There is a complex web of reasons why this happens, of course. The fact that you’re 16% more likely to die in hospital on a Sunday rather than a Wednesday is one. Older people landing up on trolleys for hours on end in A&E because doctors can’t be arsed to be called out at weekends is another.

A higher incidence of colds and other ailments has to be allowed for too; and, of course, we have more falls.

But there is a root cause that makes people less well in winter that can be fixed. Millions of older people are living in houses that are under insulated and inefficiently heated. Many homes are unadapted to their needs. Chest and heart conditions are exacerbated by the cold and damp. More falls happen because confusion can set in. People’s lives get shut in living within one or two rooms – and that can affect your whole sense of wellbeing and your health.

The (then) Government’s response some years back was to force the energy companies to undertake more (free) insulation of older people’s homes- albeit the companies themselves passed the cost on. That has helped – but there is still a huge way to go, making the latest decision to slim down ECO wilfully harmful. The Green Deal, meanwhile, by any mode of reckoning an unmitigated disaster, is encouraged to continue.

Fuel bills continue to spiral, and we’re told that the best way to deal with this is not to stop the Big Six racking up huge profits. It’s for consumers to seek cheaper tariffs. That will only help so far – and it’s the smaller users of electricity and gas (older people) and who are often not on the Internet (older people) who will still have to pay the highest tariffs.

As I point out in my piece on heating oil, it’s also older people on fixed and limited incomes who are paying through the nose on the tariffs for auto top ups – up to twice the cost of gas.

We have to look at this in a root and branch way, and to really get to grips with it, with initiatives such as solid wall insulation, lower standing charges for lower users, more dedicated housing for older people, easier access to home adaptations to make them safer, an NHS that isn’t running on fumes at weekends…

Either that, or perhaps someone up on high needs to be honest enough to say: “Look, all you very nice but slightly surplus to requirements oldies. We’re really sorry that tens of thousands of you seem to keep dying each and every year.

“But in the greater scheme of things, we have more important things to spend the nation’s money on. Like HS2. Or paying redundancy packages to public sector staff and then rehiring them. Or heating MPs’ second homes.

“And, let’s face it, many of you will be popping your clogs quite soon anyway… just not as quickly as you thought, that’s all.”

After all, just what is an older person’s life worth?


By Tony Watts, Chair, South West Forum on Ageing

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