Cold snap alert plan 'will save lives'

A heater and a man holding a cup of tea There are an estimated 27,000 extra deaths each winter

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Winter weather alerts aimed at helping vulnerable people during cold snaps are to be introduced in England.

Agencies such as the NHS and social services will get the Met Office alerts and will then have to take action to ensure people are safe in their homes.

An estimated 27,000 extra people die every winter - a fifth more than during the summer.

Extra cash is also being used to help people keep homes warm, but some question whether this will be enough.

Instead, they have called on the government to do more to tackle the underlying problem - the rising cost of energy.

England has a much higher death rate during winter than many colder countries, such as Sweden.

Schemes, such as Warm Front, have been running for a number of years to help pay for people to insulate their homes or make heating improvements.

'Not enough'

The Department of Health has pledged an extra £10m for this initiative - on top of the £110m. However, even with the extra money, the fund has still been cut compared to previous years.

A new fund, worth £20m, is also being set up to encourage councils and charities to come up with new ways of helping the most vulnerable.

The cold weather plan has been drawn up in partnership with the Met Office and Health Protection Agency.

How the cold kills

  • Death rates rise by about a fifth during the winter
  • That is the equivalent of an extra 27,000 deaths on top of the normal number of deaths that would be expected
  • About 40% of these are from heart attacks and strokes, while another third are related to respiratory problems
  • It is recommended that indoor temperatures of 21C are maintained during the day and 16C at night
  • Below 16C the body's resistances to respiratory disease is diminished.
  • Below 12C blood pressure starts to rise

Under the new arrangements, the Met will issue alerts depending on the severity of the conditions. In total, there will be four alerts, each of which will ask local agencies, including NHS trusts and councils, to carry out certain duties.

For example, at level three, which would have been reached last winter, health and social care staff should consider daily visits to the most vulnerable.

In previous years it has been up to local areas to decide how to react to cold snaps.

The plan also contains advice to individuals and carers, such as ensuring at-risk groups get vaccinated against flu and what temperature to keep homes heated to.

A minimum of 21C is being recommended during the day and 16C at night, as below that the risk of heart problems, strokes and respiratory illness increases.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: "We want everyone to get ready for winter and be prepared before temperatures drop. By working together, this co-ordinated plan will help protect those most in need."

And chief medical officer Prof Dame Sally Davies added: "Keeping our homes warm is important - but it's not necessary to heat the whole house.

"We just need to keep the main rooms we occupy - such as the living room and bedroom - warm. Warm clothing and hot drinks should help prevent our most vulnerable people falling ill this winter."

But Mervyn Kohler, a special adviser for Age UK and member of the government's fuel poverty advisory group, said while it was pleasing the NHS was now recognising the problem, much more needed to be done.

"The extra resources being put in is not enough. We also have to do more to tackle the big problem everyone is facing, the rising cost of energy bills. We need action across government if this is to be achieved."

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