The summer heatwaves of 2019 resulted in almost 900 extra deaths, according to statistical analysis from Public Health England.
Over the past four years, more than 3,400 people have died early during periods of extreme temperature in England. Global heating is increasing the frequency of heatwaves and a cross-party committee of MPs warned in July that the UK was “woefully unprepared” for this impact of the climate emergency.
All regions of England were affected except the south-west, and almost all the premature deaths were among people aged 65 or over. The frail elderly with heart or kidney problems are most at risk in a heatwave and dehydration can also lead to dizziness and falls.
“Heatwaves continue to result in significant health impact,” said the PHE report. It reported the “excess deaths” during the heatwaves, ie the additional mortalities compared with the long-term average for those dates.
Two heatwaves accounted for the 892 deaths. The first, from 21 to 28 July, included the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK: 38.7C in Cambridge. The second occurred between 23 and 29 August.
The climate crisis made 2019 a year of record temperatures in the UK, according to the Met Office. The only region that recorded a statistically significant number of deaths in those under 65 was London, with 41 early deaths reported during the August heatwave.
“Tragically, many of these deaths are likely to have been preventable,” said Bob Ward, at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics. “Many of the people who are killed by heatwave conditions die in their own homes or in care homes. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) pointed out in July 2019 that the government has failed to set out a coherent plan for implementing the adaptations required.”
The CCC said it had been recommending new building regulations to ensure homes, hospitals and schools do not overheat since 2015, but that this advice had been rejected by ministers, who cited a commitment to “reduce net regulation on homebuilders”. Without action, the number of people dying as a result of heat is expected to reach 7,000 a year by 2040, the CCC said.
“The CCC also noted that although there has been a heatwave plan for England since 2004, there is no evidence that it has reduced the number of deaths that occur during hot weather,” said Ward.
The report from the House of Commons’ Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said hospitals and care homes, in particular, must be prepared for heatwaves, given that sick and elderly people are most vulnerable. But they say currently the NHS is only required to prepare plans for severe cold weather.
“The government needs to take much more seriously the dangers of hot weather. The threat of deadly heatwaves is growing due to climate change and the death toll is likely to rise unless there is strong action,” said Ward.
The Guardian has contacted the Department of Health for comment.
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