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NHS leaders warn energy costs could create public health crisis

The NHS Confederation has written to the chancellor to warn of catastrophic results if the government doesn't help people with energy costs.

The NHS is chronically underfunded. Image: Li Lin/Unsplash

NHS leaders have warned of a “humanitarian crisis” as the fallout from rising energy costs could impact people’s health. 

In a letter to the chancellor, the NHS Confederation outlined concerns that unaffordable household energy bills could lead to a public health emergency, which would increase health inequalities and place a high demand on NHS services. 

“The country is facing a humanitarian crisis,”said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the UK with more than 1.5 million healthcare staff. “Many people could face the awful choice between skipping meals to heat their homes and having to live in cold, damp and very unpleasant conditions. 

“This in turn could lead to outbreaks of illness and sickness around the country and widen health inequalities, worsen children’s life chances and leave an indelible scar on local communities.”

Soaring energy costs have added to a cost of living crisis which is only set to increase in the coming months. Real-terms inflation is predicted to reach nearly 18 per cent for those on the lowest incomes this autumn and energy bills could exceed universal credit payments. 

Many of the most vulnerable are already cutting back on essential costs, with disability charity Sense reporting that a third of disabled people skip meals to save money.

A government spokesperson said “we have taken action to help households with £37 billion worth of support, which includes specific support to help people through the difficult winter ahead”. But the rise in household energy costs is expected to outpace government support promised so far when prices rise in October and again in January.

The letter warned of a dramatic upsurge in respiratory conditions, undernutrition, and hospital admissions in children, as well as an increased risk of heart attacks, stroke and falls for older people living in cold conditions. 

“These outbreaks will strike just as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record,” he continued, as the high demand on health services will coincide with predicted high levels of flu, norovirus and potentially further Covid outbreaks. Rising energy costs could also have a major impact on mental health, wellbeing and social care services. 

“Not being able to afford a warm home and healthy food causes untold stress and anxiety,” said Katie Schmuecker, principal policy advisor at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

The letter calls for the Westminster government to “set out a more targeted and detailed support package for those households who need it most in advance of the decision on the new energy price cap next week.”

“With bills expected to go up by 82 per cent, we believe the government’s current policy of providing £400 (paid in monthly installments) is not going to be nearly sufficient, even alongside the one-off payments for recipients of universal credit, disability benefits and the winter fuel allowance. 

“Failure to go beyond this risks a public health emergency and this must be avoided at all costs.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the two candidates to replace him in September, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, have all so far refused to detail how they would address the problem.

Earlier this summer, The Big Issue teamed up with former prime minister Gordon Brown to call on the government to take urgent action to prevent a “poverty time bomb” going off in October.

Writing in The Big Issue, Brown said: “With funds for charity starting to dry up, and food banks under pressure, only one group of people can make the difference. Johnson, Truss and Sunak must take time off from holidays and hustings and lead Britain, its regions and nations, away from an autumn and winter of misery.”

Wes Streeting, shadow health and social care secretary, said: “Families are really worried about how they are going to afford soaring energy bills this winter. Many will be plunged into poverty by this cost of living crisis and be forced to make choices between eating and heating.

“NHS leaders are absolutely right to raise concerns about the impact on health. The vaccines minister has admitted that elderly people unable to heat their homes this winter will be at greater risk of flu and other illnesses.

“Labour would freeze energy bills this winter, saving households £1,000. We will pay for it with a windfall tax on the excess profits of oil and gas companies, who are making more money than they know what to do with.”

A government spokesperson said: “We know that rising prices are affecting how far people’s incomes go, which is why we have taken action to help households with £37 billion worth of support, which includes specific support to help people through the difficult winter ahead.

“Eight million of the most vulnerable households will see £1,200 extra support, provided in instalments across the year, and everyone will receive £400 over the winter to help with energy bills. That’s on top of action earlier this year including a record fuel duty cut and a National Insurance cut worth up to £330 a year for the typical employee.

“We are also working closely with the NHS at pace to ensure we are ready for the pressures ahead by increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharge and using new innovations such as virtual wards.”

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