Heatwave will create a hidden natural disaster in the UK this weekend
The UK, and the Government in particular, is not doing enough to address the mounting risks posed by heatwaves, causing many unnecessary deaths, argues Bob Ward.
Hundreds of people are likely to die from heat across the UK this weekend as temperatures are forecast to reach 30 degrees Celsius for the first time this summer. But this is a deadly natural disaster about which almost nobody will care. It will receive very little coverage from the media or comment from politicians.
Few people realise that more than 2500 people died during three brief periods of heatwave conditions in England last summer.
Many of the deaths from heatwaves are preventable, but the Government has ignored numerous warnings from experts and the nation has no comprehensive strategy for managing the risk from heatwaves, which are growing in frequency and severity due to climate change.
Most of those who will die over the next few days have underlying health conditions, such as respiratory illnesses. Many live in houses or care homes that will overheat, resulting in temperatures indoors that are far higher than outside.
It is not just high daytime temperatures that can prove fatal, but also warm nights. Cities are particularly high-risk areas during hot weather due to the ‘urban heat island’ effect, with dark building and road surfaces absorbing more of the sun’s energy, which creates temperatures that are several degrees higher than in surrounding rural areas.
Although people die from heat far more quickly than from cold, the full scale of the deaths will probably not be known for several months, when statisticians at Public Health England calculate the number of ‘excess deaths’ that are attributable to the hot weather.
Despite these likely impacts, the Heat-Health Watch System operated by the Met Office and Public Health England may not even reach its critical thresholds for alerts this weekend. Although the temperature is currently forecast to reach 30°C in London, the Level 3 alert threshold for ‘heatwave action’ for the capital is set at 32°C.
Between 30 July and 1 August 2020, an estimated 246 people died from heat as the maximum temperature recorded by the Met Office for Central England reached 33.2°C. Public Health England admitted that the Level 3 alert was not reached in any region during that period.
This failure should not be surprising. The Policy Innovation and Evaluation Research Unit at The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published an independent review of the Heatwave Plan for England in May 2020, concluding that most deaths during hot weather occur without the regional thresholds for the alert being reached. The review also found that the Heatwave Plan had made no significant impact on the number of hospital admissions and deaths. In fact, the number of heat-related deaths in summer 2020 was the highest since the Plan was introduced in 2004.
But the Government has still not made any improvements to the Plan, even though the Met Office announced at the end of May that there was “a greater than normal chance of impacts from hot weather such as heatwaves” this summer, with a 30 per cent chance of hotter than average temperatures.
I wrote to the Prime Minister and several members of his Cabinet ahead of the summer to repeat my call for the development of a National Heat Risk Strategy. I pointed out that the risks of heat are increasing 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. I have still not received a reply to my latest letter.
In June, the independent experts at the Climate Change Committee delivered a damning verdict on the Government’s progress in adapting the country to the worsening consequences of climate change, including heatwaves. It stated: “Climate change impacts are increasing, but the UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme has not delivered the necessary improved resilience to the changing climate. … There is a lack of cross-departmental coordination in dealing with the multiple health outcomes from overheating.”
In particular, many homes are still prone to overheating during the summer, and the Government has not yet implemented regulations to ensure that new buildings do not become deadly ovens in hot weather. The Committee previously noted that about 20 per cent of homes in England overheat even in normal summer conditions.
In May, the Technical Report prepared for the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment stated: “High temperatures are increasingly affecting health and wellbeing, but there has been little progress in addressing the increasing risks from overheating through building standards or incentives to retrofit.” It is clear that the country, and the Government in particular, is not doing enough to address the mounting risks posed by heatwaves, and many people are dying unnecessarily as a result.
The threat will continue to grow over the next few decades until global emissions are cut to net-zero and global temperature stops rising. Unless we start to take the dangers of hot weather seriously, the annual death toll from these natural disasters will continue to increase.