With daytime temperatures in the UK forecast to top 30°C, hundreds of preventable deaths are likely. Bob Ward explains why the Government should be working harder to mitigate this risk as the incidence of heatwaves become greater with climate change.

The Heat-Health Alert system, operated jointly by the Met Office and the UK Health Security Agency, was raised to Level 3 yesterday (15 June). People with underlying health conditions, particularly respiratory illnesses, are most at risk from this level of heat and hundreds of deaths are likely. In urban areas, strong sunlight is likely to increase the threat by causing high levels of air pollution. But many of these deaths could have been avoided if the Government had acted to improve current safeguards.

In May 2020 the Policy Innovation and Evaluation Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published a review, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care, about the current arrangements for managing the risks of heatwaves. The review concluded that “there is no definitive evidence” of the impact of the Heatwave Plan for England since it was introduced after the heat-related deaths of more than 2,000 people in the UK and tens of thousands across Europe during August 2003. The review also pointed out that most recent deaths from hot weather occurred outside of the high alert periods of the Heat-Health Alert system.

Yet two years on the Government has not made any significant improvements to its plans. Last summer, there were 1,634 “excess deaths” during periods of heatwave conditions, and the death toll in summer 2020 was even higher at 2,556.

These excess deaths excluded those estimated to have been caused by COVID-19. The report by the UK Health Security Agency states: “Excess all-cause mortality was calculated by comparing the average number of all-cause deaths (corrected for delays in registration) on the episode days with the average from the combination of the 14 non-episode days preceding and subsequent to the study period, having subtracted the estimated number of deaths attributed to coronavirus (COVID-19) on those days.”

In August 2020, I wrote to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, calling on the Government to devise and implement a National Heat Risk Strategy to improve measures to prevent and respond to the threat from heatwaves. I received a feeble reply several months later from the Department of Health and Social Care.

I wrote again to Mr Johnson on 28 May 2021 to renew my call, 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 eventually received a reply on 25 January 2022 from an official at the Department of Health and Social Care. The email confirmed that the Government would not be taking any further immediate action to tackle the risks of heatwaves.

The email stated:

“The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) takes the growing risks from hot weather to public health seriously. Under the National Adaptation Programme, the UKHSA has committed to delivering a single adverse weather and health plan. This will bring together and improve existing evidenced-based guidance to strengthen coordinated action within the health system and across government departments and local communities, reduce health risks of adverse weather, and address the health risks identified in the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment.

“Whilst the UKHSA focuses on developing the single adverse weather and health plan, significant updates will not be made to the Heatwave Plan until it is replaced by the new plan in 2023. The guidance contained in the Heatwave Plan is kept under regular review and the guidance and actions outlined in the current plan remain up to date. This year, the UKHSA has reviewed the Heatwave Plan and associated guidance materials including the Beat the Heat: coping with heat and COVID-19 poster and leaflet and the Heat-health risks and COVID-19: actions to prevent harm slide set, and held webinars to engage stakeholders.”

The slow pace of the Government’s response means that the UK is likely to experience hundreds of deaths this summer that could have been prevented if prompt action had been taken, not least to increase awareness of the risks.

The Government cannot claim that it is unaware that the risks are increasing because climate change is causing heatwaves to become more frequent and intense. In January the Government published an updated UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, which acknowledged “the significant risks of overheating in buildings as UK temperatures increase and heatwaves become more common”. It also stated: “As well as risk to life, high temperatures will lead to productivity losses for UK workers.”

The Assessment outlined a few measures that are being undertaken, but it falls far short of a strategy. Yet it is intended to inform an updated National Adaptation Programme for England, which the Government is required under the Climate Change Act to publish next year. It is to be hoped that as part of this effort the Government will create a comprehensive cross-departmental strategy for addressing the growing threat from heatwaves.

In the meantime, several hundred people are likely to lose their lives. The latest three-month outlook issued by the Met Office indicates that the chance of a hot summer is twice as high as ‘normal’, so the deaths that occur over the coming days are unlikely to be the last of the summer.

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