A summer of likely natural disasters and preventable deaths
Bob Ward renews his call to the Government for a National Heat Risk Strategy.
The meteorological summer in the northern hemisphere begins today, 1 June, and the date in the UK marks the start of a season of natural disasters during which hundreds, if not thousands, of preventable deaths will occur due to heat.
Every bout of hot weather this summer could have deadly consequences across the country. The Met Office’s three-month outlook for the summer months warns that there is “a greater than normal chance of impacts from hot weather such as heatwaves”, with a 30 per cent chance of hotter than average temperatures.
While the UK Government has been making the case ahead of the COP26 United Nations climate change summit for every country to increase their adaptation to the impacts of climate change, it has not been prioritising domestic efforts to tackle one of the most lethal effects in this country.
So it is time for me to renew my call for the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Government to create and implement a National Heat Risk Strategy.
I wrote to Mr Johnson last week, stating: “Summer heatwaves are natural disasters for the UK that have killed thousands of people over the past few years. The Heatwave Plan for England is demonstrably inadequate, and many lives could have been saved by a better strategy for managing heat risks. Please do not delay action any further on this issue.”
I previously wrote to Mr Johnson on 27 August 2020 to recommend a new comprehensive cross-government strategy to deal with the risks created by hot weather, which are increasing due to climate change. This would require the involvement of several government departments and would replace the currently ineffective approach, which is failing to protect lives.
Unfortunately, my appeal seems to have had no impact. I received a reply on 1 December 2020 from the Head of Ministerial Correspondence and Public Enquiries at the Department of Health and Social Care, informing me that the new National Institute for Health Protection “will put the UK in the best possible position for the next stage of the fight against COVID-19 and will enable the country to be ready to respond to other health threats, now and in the future”.
Although the Government has of course been heavily occupied with managing the COVID-19 pandemic, it was disappointing to find it lacking any urgency in tackling the growing threat from heatwaves. The UK is experiencing more intense and frequent summer heatwave periods due to climate change. The hottest daytime temperature was recorded in July 2019. Summer 2018 was the joint warmest in the UK, and made 30 times more likely by climate change, according to researchers at the Met Office.
A new study by researchers at the University of Bern and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which was published on 31 May 2021 in the journal Nature Climate Change, estimates that 35 per cent of heat-related deaths in major urban areas of the UK each year could be attributed to climate change.
Last summer, there were 2,556 deaths in England linked to periods of hot weather, according to an analysis by Public Health England. This was the highest figure for heat-related mortality since the major heatwave in August 2003, which killed an estimated 70,000 people across Europe, including about 2,000 in the UK. Altogether, more than 5,000 people died in England as a result of hot summer weather in the five years from 2016 to 2020. Almost every summer heatwave has proven to be a natural disaster, with large loss of life.
Although there has been no analysis of the circumstances of those people who died last summer, previous research suggests that they probably suffered from underlying health conditions, particularly respiratory illnesses. Significantly, the deaths have not been attributed to COVID-19, which had declined to relatively low levels in the UK during summer 2020.
More detailed studies in other countries have shown that the most vulnerable to the effects of heat are most at risk if they live on their own in a home that is poorly adapted to deal with hot weather. It is well-known that the UK’s notoriously poor building stock exacerbates temperature-related risks. Inadequate design and construction mean that many homes provide little protection against cold weather and can overheat in hot weather.
The Heatwave Plan for England was introduced in 2004 following the disaster of the deaths the previous summer. It is reissued each year ahead of the summer, and is accompanied by other measures, such as the Heat-Health Alert service, which is operated by Public Health England and the Met Office. The alert level increases from zero to one on the first day of summer.
The Department of Health and Social Care commissioned a review of the Heatwave Plan by the Policy Innovation and Evaluation Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which was published on 27 May 2020. Its results were shocking, concluding: “The analysis of the general summertime relationships between temperature and mortality or emergency hospital admissions does not provide evidence that the introduction of the HWP [Heatwave Plan] in 2004 has had an effect on these outcomes, although adverse impacts during individual heatwave periods have reduced in recent years, suggesting that there may have been some contribution from the actions encouraged by the HWP on alert days.” It added: “The health burdens associated with hot weather at temperatures below the alert thresholds set in the HWP, suggest that the current HWP is likely to make insufficient provision to prevent these outcomes.”
Despite these clear shortcomings, Public Health England made no changes to the Heatwave Plan ahead of summer 2020. The Plan was reissued on 28 April 2021, but again it was unchanged despite the fact that there were 2,556 deaths linked to hot weather last summer.
There is such a lack of cross-departmental focus by the Government on the risks of heatwaves that it even missed the chance to promote retrofitting of buildings to improve ventilation and cooling as part of the short-lived Green Homes Grant that was announced by the Chancellor last summer.
The Climate Change Committee is likely to highlight the relative lack of progress in adapting to the growing risks of heatwaves when it publishes its annual progress report to Parliament on 24 June. Its last assessment in 2019 of how well the UK is adapting to climate change impacts warned that “around 20% of existing homes currently overheat even in cool summers”, and concluded: “Homes are not adapted for current or future high temperatures, there is a lack of awareness of the risks to health from high indoor temperatures, and a lack of appropriate planning in health and social care.”