by Daphne Liddle
AROUND 10,000 pensioners died earlier than they otherwise would in the coldest three months of last winter because of the dramatic increase in domestic fuel prices.
Figures published last Tuesday by the National Office of Statistics show 36,700 more individuals died during the winter months than at other times of the year, up from 25,300 in the previous period.
The vast majority of these were aged over 75. The figure also represents the highest rate of excess winter deaths since 1999/2000.
Average annual energy bills for pensioners now exceed £1,000. This will absorb over 16 per cent of the income of a single pensioner dependent on the pension credit minimum guarantee and the current £250 winter fuel payment.
Dot Gibson, general secretary of the National Pensioners’ Convention, said: “Since 1997, we have lost over 260,000 pensioners during the winter months because of cold-related illnesses, yet the government seems incapable of acting.
“No other section of our society is so vulnerable and treated so badly. Pensioners see rising fuel bills and are constantly worried about whether or not they can afford to put their heating on.”
“Around three million pensioner households are currently spending more than 10 per cent of their income on fuel bills, and are living in fuel poverty. What these people need now is more money — in the form of the winter fuel allowance so that they can avoid having to decide whether to heat or eat.”
She called for the winter fuel allowance to be raised to at least £500 and a reduced social tariff for older customers and forcing the energy companies to pass on reductions in prices.
Andrew Harrop, head of policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, said: “It is a national scandal that the UK has more elderly people dying in winter, compared to the rest of the year, than countries with more severe weather, such as Sweden and Finland.
“Excess winter deaths of older people have remained stubbornly high in recent years, but last winter’s huge spike sounds a deafening wake-up call about the older population’s well-being if we have another cold snap. To end this national scandal, the Government must do much more to tackle fuel poverty, which currently affects one in three older households.”
Fuel poverty charity National Energy Action (NEA) warned that a combination of high energy prices, low incomes and poor insulation will continue to pose a serious threat to the health of millions of people, especially pensioners, during the coming months.
Jenny Saunders, NEA chief executive, said: “The Government needs to step up action that will end these shameful statistics and comprehensibly tackle fuel poverty in the UK.”
Announcing the latest figures, the Office of National Statistics pointed out that seasonal flu last winter had been “moderate” but temperatures had been the coldest since 2005. Campaigners said a 40 per cent spike in the price of gas and electricity to an average £1,310 per household had exacerbated the situation.
As fuel bills have soared over the past six years, the number of households in “fuel poverty” — defined as having to spend 10 per cent or more of their income on power and heat — has risen five-fold to 6.6 million this year.