Millions facing ‘significant humanitarian crisis’ due to rising cost of living

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Millions of households in the UK are facing a “significant humanitarian crisis” this winter due to the rising cost of living, with thousands of people expected to die as a result of fuel poverty, leading health experts have warned in a new report.

More than 6,000 people die each winter from fuel poverty, but the figure is likely to be “much higher this year” as a result of rising energy costs, according to researchers from the UCL Institute of Health Equity, led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot.

Energy bills are estimated to reach £5,386 per year by January, placing millions of families under immense financial strain.

The researchers said that if as many as 56 per cent of UK households fall into poverty by January 2023 – as forecast by experts at the University of York – it will mean that between 5 and 10 million children suffer significant health, social and educational consequences.

“Children living in a cold house are less likely to be able to do their homework, leading to them fall behind at school. Long term, that is more likely to lead to low-income, unstable work, and not being able to make ends meet,” said Sir Michael.

Professor Ian Sinha, a consultant respiratory paediatrician at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, who co-authored the report, said: “There is a window of opportunity in childhood for optimal respiratory maturation. This is impaired by problems associated with cold, substandard, or overcrowded housing, such as viruses, dust, mould, and pollution.

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“When we add in factors such as cutting back on food to pay the gas bills, and the mental health and educational impact of cold houses, the picture is bleaker still.”

The experts’ warnings are outlined in a new report published by the Institute of Health Equity, titled “Fuel Poverty, Cold Homes and Health Inequalities”, which links the “dangerous consequences” of living in a cold home to a child’s health and future life expectancy.

The report highlights how certain households are more likely to be in fuel poverty, including those on low incomes, households where people are living with disabilities, and minority ethnic households.

The geographical inequality in energy efficiency has also increased over time. In 2011, there was an 8.5 per cent difference between the proportion of homes rated band C or above in London (the highest percentage at 46.93 per cent) and the West Midlands (the lowest, at 38.46 per cent).

In 2021, the difference between London and the West Midlands had increased to 11 per cent, with the percentage of homes rated at band C or above actually falling in the West Midlands since 2011.

The rate of installations designed to improve household energy efficiency, such as fitting cavity wall or loft insulation, also peaked in 2012, the report said, and has dropped by approximately 90 per cent since then.

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Homes that are cold as a result of fuel poverty exacerbate health inequalities, the researchers said. Cold homes can cause and worsen respiratory conditions, cardiovascular diseases, poor mental health, dementia, hypothermia, and problems with childhood development.

In some circumstances, health problems may be exacerbated to such a degree that they can cause death.

Cold homes and fuel poverty contribute to the phenomenon of excess winter deaths. England saw an estimated 63,000 excess winter deaths in 2020-21. Estimates suggest that some 10 per cent of excess winter deaths are directly attributable to fuel poverty.

Dr Jessica Allen, deputy director at the Institute of Health Equity, said that deaths linked to fuel poverty are expected to be “much higher this year”.

Sir Michael said: “Warm homes, nutritious food and a stable job are vital building blocks for health. In addition to the effect of cold homes on mental and physical illness, living on a low income does much damage.

“If we are constantly worrying about making ends meet it puts a strain on our bodies, resulting in increased stress, with effects on the heart and blood vessels, and a disordered immune system.

“This type of living environment will mean thousands of people will die earlier than they should, and, in addition to lung damage in children, the toxic stress can permanently affect their brain development.”

He added: “In a rich country like the UK, the idea that more than half of households should face fuel poverty is a sad judgement of the management of our affairs.

“The government needs to act, and act right now. It’s clear we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis, with thousands losing their lives and millions of children’s development blighted, leading to inequalities that will last a lifetime.”

Commenting on the report, a spokesperson for the poverty charity National Energy Action said: “For too long we have known cold homes cost lives. On average, about 80 people per day die during the winter months due to a cold home.

“The wider physical and mental health impacts are devastating, preying on the most vulnerable in our society – often striking those with the worst existing health conditions, or in the most fragile mental states, the hardest.”

The charity added that lives will be lost if the government fails to tackle the energy crisis properly.

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