NHS leaders across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are warning of a “humanitarian crisis” with rising numbers of people falling sick and worsening health outcomes across the country unless the Government takes urgent action to limit further energy price increases.
In a highly unusual move, NHS leaders have written to the Chancellor to say that rapidly rising energy prices, alongside other cost of living pressures, will leave individuals and families across the UK facing impossible choices, such as either heating their homes and reducing spending on food and other essentials.
In the letter co-ordinated by NHS Confederation, a body that represents NHS bodies across the UK, they have called on the Chancellor to limit price rises and for targeted support for those individuals and families most in need.
They warn that if people are forced to live in cold homes and if they cannot afford nutritious food, then their health will quickly deteriorate.
They are very concerned that widespread fuel poverty will increase the already high number of annual deaths associated with cold homes – estimated at around 10,000 a year.
Widening health inequalities
NHS leaders fear a widening of health inequalities and worsening health outcomes for people living in communities with the highest levels of deprivation if individuals and families are driven further into poverty because of excessive energy costs. A decision on the energy price cap is expected on 26 August, with the latest estimates suggesting that the cap could go as high as £4,200 by January.
They predict that if households are not safeguarded from unaffordable energy price hikes, it will fall to local NHS and social care services to pick up the pieces, with increased hospital admissions and demand on GP surgeries, A&E departments, ambulances, care homes and other social care services.
Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, Matthew Taylor 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 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.
“These outbreaks will strike just as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record. 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.”
Plans to recruit overseas care staff
After calls for the Government to do things differently, the Department of Health and Social Care has also confirmed that it is looking at how it could recruit staff from overseas more easily because of winter staff shortage concerns.
The Times reported the UK was planning an overseas hiring spree for UK social care and NHS managers could be sent to countries such as India and the Philippines to hire thousands of nurses.
A spokesperson at the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Our new international recruitment taskforce is considering innovative ways to boost staffing numbers within health and adult social care.
“As part of this, we will work with the sector and recruitment experts to examine how to recruit staff from overseas more effectively into adult social care.”
NHS faces toughest winter on record
The NHS is already facing what many are predicting to be one of the toughest winters on record, owing to the high demand on health services combined with predicted high levels of flu, norovirus and potentially further Covid outbreaks.
NHS leaders warn that a failure to restrict energy price hikes will make the situation worse by increasing demand on already pressured health and social care services. As well as leading to more sickness and illness, they warn it will have a major impact on mental health and wellbeing and in social care.
Chair of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, Beatrice Fraenkel said: “There is a strong correlation between rising energy prices and the health and well-being of the communities we serve and belong to. In turn this has a significant bearing on the increased demands placed on our health services.
“If people are unable to afford to adequately heat their homes or eat well, they are increasingly likely to fall ill and require the care of the NHS which is already under significant pressure. Whilst we as employers are doing all we can to mitigate against the situation this crisis is proving a real challenge for our staff personally and professionally.”
Chair of Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Jeremy Vanes said: “The population my organisation provides mental health services for is amongst the least wealthy in the UK, with over 45% of people living within the lowest income bands.
“We anticipate some will even struggle to keep their homes in the year ahead, such is the affordability crisis. Unquestionably this situation will have wide health effects, and further support should be well targeted.”
Fuel poverty to impact half of households
Figures show that without further measures, and taking account the £400 rebate, fuel poverty rates will reach nearly 50% from October and 55% from January with over half of households in the UK in fuel poverty.
Living in fuel poverty will mean a drastic uptick in respiratory conditions, undernutrition, and even hospital admissions in children. Vulnerable older people living in cold conditions are also particularly at risk of heart attacks, stroke and falls.
Principal Policy Advisor at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Katie Schmuecker said: “This unprecedented move from health and care leaders in England hammers home the fact that the rising cost of living is a national emergency.
“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 cannot 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.
“Over 7 million households were already going without at least one essential like food in May. The number of people going without common necessities will become an unmanageable risk if nothing is done.”
It is unprecedented for NHS leaders to comment on energy bills in this way, increasing the pressure on the Government to offer additional support.
The statement by NHS Confederation today highlights the fears of many in Westminster that this winter there may be a perfect storm of Covid on the rise, high numbers of patients with flu and people getting too cold and malnourished because of a choice between heating and eating.
The fact that this statement is “unprecedented” highlights a big problem with our health and care system. It has been acknowledged for years that cold homes increase the flow of people, particularly the old and vulnerable, into hospital beds in winter. So, why hasn’t this been drawn to light much earlier by the system.
While it is obvious that the new Prime Minister will have to place rising energy prices at the top of their inbox in September, the bigger challenge they face is how to refocus the efforts of the state towards prevention in the first place.
For example, improving energy efficiency in homes could save the NHS £1 billion. So, the NHS Confederation’s calls should act as a wake-up call to do things differently.
The big question around Westminster is whether it will be too little, too late…