Excess Winter Deaths in England and Wales

It has become popular on a number of blogs and other media to blame excess winter deaths in the “UK” on the British government. Absent data, and with reporting like this from the BBC:

There was a big rise in the number of winter deaths last year, official figures for England and Wales show. An estimated 31,100 excess winter deaths occurred in 2012-13 – a 29% increase on the previous winter.

… it is easy to get sucked into the meme of rising energy prices, spreading fuel poverty, misguided energy policies resulting in 31,000 old folks dying unnecessarily each year. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I decided to have a look at the data on excess winter deaths and fuel poverty. This is the first of two posts, this one dealing with the former issue.

The main source of information comes from the UK Office for National Statistics in a report titled Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales, 2012/13 (Provisional) and 2011/12 (Final).
Here is the summary of findings:

In common with other countries, in England and Wales more people die in the winter than in the summer. This statistical bulletin presents provisional figures of excess winter deaths (also referred to as excess winter mortality – EWM) in England and Wales for the winter period 2012/13, and final figures for the winter period 2011/12. Historical trends from 1950/51 onwards are also presented for comparison. Figures are presented by sex, age, area and cause of death. Figures on temperature and influenza incidence are also provided to add context to the mortality figures.

In 2012/13 19.6% more people died in the winter months compared with the non-winter months, up from 15.5% in 2011/12. There were an estimated 31,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales in 2012/13 – a 29% increase compared with the previous winter. As in previous years, there were more excess winter deaths in females than in males in 2012/13 (18,000 compared with 13,100), and the majority of deaths occurred among those aged 75 and over. There were 25,600 excess winter deaths in this older age group in 2012/13 compared with just 5,500 in people aged under 75.

Winter 2012/13 was characterised by a milder than average December, followed by a prolonged period of lower than average temperatures. March 2013 was the coldest since 1962 with an average monthly temperature of just 2.6°C. The number of deaths peaked in the first week of January, which coincided with a peak in rates of influenza-like illness over the Christmas weeks. The mean number of daily deaths was higher than average for a prolonged period between February and April 2013.

The first key observation to make is that excess winter deaths are a natural phenomenon. Particularly old people are more likely to die in winter than in summer. A common cause is influenza type illnesses. Figure 1 shows how excess winter deaths have been reduced from over 100,000 per year in 1950/51 to 31,000 per year today. This is a triumph for wealth created from fossil fuels and nuclear power combined with on the whole, enlightened social policies and human ingenuity. I appreciate that many may feel unjustly treated, but these statistics speak for themselves. We have an ageing population and fewer old folks have been dying in winter compared to the past.

Figure 1 Excess winter deaths have declined from over 100,000 in 1950/51 to 31,000 today. The alarmist reporting from the BBC refers to the small uptick in the most recent year reported.

The other key chart shows how death rate increases in winter time, inversely proportional to temperature (Figure 2). In Winter, when folks spend a lot more time indoors, perhaps in social groups, it is intrinsically less healthy than being out in the garden or going for short walks in Summer.

Figure 2 In England and Wales there are typically 12,000 deaths per day in the summer months and this rises to 16,000 deaths per day in the winter months defining the phenomenon of excess winter deaths. Note how 2012/13 was a bad year for excess winter deaths compared with the 5 year average. February, March and April were particularly bad, perhaps linked to the excessive cold weather of March that may be linked to low solar activity [1].

In conclusion, our society has become wealthier, healthier and older without us noticing. There are many good reasons to criticise government policy, but excess winter deaths does not seem to be one of them.

1. Sarah Ineson et al. 2011 Solar forcing of winter climate variability in the Northern Hemisphere NATURE GEOSCIENCE DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1282

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24 Responses to Excess Winter Deaths in England and Wales

  1. DaveB says:

    Whatever one thinks of current EU energy policy, it is absolutely correct to undermine the nonsense that excess winter mortality (EWM) is exclusively the fault of the current/ prior/ other lot’s (delete to taste) UK Energy Secretary. I too briefly examined the notion when it began to attract attention on “climate sceptic” blogs and saw folk querying it being accused of “condoning 35,000 deaths”. An impressive level of statistical illiteracy, you have to admit.

    I soon found a balanced and sensible NHS comment at:

    http://www.nhs.uk/news/2013/11November/Pages/Excess-winter-deaths-rose-by-a-third-last-winter.aspx

  2. Kit P says:

    You tell me your agenda and I will tell you how much junk science you use to report ‘excess’ or premature death.Of course energy is about the cheapest factor in prolonging the life of the old. I could could say that the energy crisis killed my mom. I did root cause analysis for a while and the root cause of my mothers death was brain cancer. She died on a nice spring day. If she had died on a bitter cold day a contributing cause would have been an inadequate support system but the root cause the cancer preventing her from paying her bills.

    • Ralph W says:

      My mother in law’s was an excess winter death. Going out for a walk at -5C when she already had multiple health issues was the final straw. Nothing to do heating her home . That said the biggest energy related cut that was made in the recent budget was to the energy companies’ obligations to insulate the homes of their vulnerable customers to modern standards. Insulation is the single most cost effective way to cut domestic fossil fuel consumption. By far.

      • Joe Public says:

        “…….energy companies’ obligations to insulate the homes of their vulnerable customers”

        Why should “I” pay extra for my energy, via my energy supplier’s obligation to insulate someone else’s home? It’s their home, they’ll enjoy the reduced energy bills.

        If, during my lifetime I chose to forgo holidays or smoking (just as examples), and insulate my home instead, why should I now contribute towards someone who was maybe a spendthrift?

        If it’s ‘their’ home, let them obtain Equity Release on it.

        Green Policies are a massive wealth-redistribution exercise, masked as CO2-saving.

        • Ralph W says:

          Because the ‘vulnerable users’ are people, generally the very old, who do not have the income to upgrade their homes and very often never did, or live in rented accommodation, and have no direct say in how their home is insulated. There is very little understanding in the general public about house design and insulation. Houses in the UK have been built to appalling bad insulation standards for at least a century, given our cold damp climate. Very often, a couple of thousand saved on the build price costs tens of thousands to rectify decades later. Even now, many new buildings are so badly put together, they come nowhere near meeting the insulation standard they are certified as meeting. As for wealth redistribution, today it is reported that the 85 to wealthy people on the planet control the same resources as the bottom 3,500,000,000 people.

  3. Charlie RUDD says:

    Euan,
    You are correct in your analysis. I work in the death trade in Oz and it is a statistical fact that most people die in August September with the death rate troughing out in February. It is even more pronounced in Oz than Europe and has been attributed to the fact that old people are confined in closed buildings during the cold period. The influenza virus is a precipitating factor in the death of an already compromised old person.
    We are beginning to see a spike in heat deaths in Oz during summer months, interesting to see how this statistic develops as global warming proceeds.

  4. goldminor says:

    Thanks for posting this. I was one who made comments on what I thought was an expanding death rate due to the colder winters and costlier energy prices. I stand educated by your post.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Thanks, it’s an easy meme to get sucked into.

    • sam says:

      goldminer.
      The warm meme is that we have been seeing warming temperatures. Hence the graph showing LESS deaths. However now that the cycle is going back we will see more deaths a temperatures drop and energy is over priced due to green taxes, subsidies etc.

      • Euan Mearns says:

        Sam, its more complicated than that. I am 57 and in my lifetime life expectancy has increased by about 10 years. This is reflected in these statistics. Huge advances in healthcare are a big part of the story – for example flue vaccines. And many old folks are now in care homes – take that or leave it as you wish. My mother lived until 92, was put into care against her will – all in the name of prolonging life. There have been improvements to the housing stock. But part of your message is correct. How well would Britain cope with the polar vortex which I’m quite sure will come our way some time soon. And energy poverty (old folks shivering in the dark) is another issue where there is room to be critical of government. There are signs of the chart bottoming out. My concern for a long time, and the government should be worried about this, are blackouts one February caused by miss management of our power supply and prolonged extreme cold. That could have a bad outcome for many – but it hasn’t happened yet.

        • sam says:

          It will be the cloudy, windless week in February that will cause much death in the future if carbon based energy is disgarded.

  5. John, UK says:

    So more people die in winter anyway when it is cold and people are more likely to catch infection. It is interesting that the UK Fig 1 chart shows a trend of falling excess winter deaths at a time when winters have tended to be become milder and more homes each year were probably fitted with central heating. Interesting the spike around 62/3 which was a horrendous winter for most of the country.
    I am not convinced that that you can say excess mortality does not occur in winter to some extent because some people either do not have access to adequate heating or are so scared by the size of their potential bills that they do not keep their dwelling sufficiently warm and thus leave themselves more open to infection. The infection kills them but the cold in their homes is a strong contributory factor. We should seek to reduce the genuine heating cost fears of the elderly poor and enable and advise them how to avoid weakening their immune system resistance to infection.
    I fear this article has trivialized this problem.

    • sam says:

      Well thoughtout observation/comment. Typical green statistics, they push and shove the narrative to fit there agenda.

  6. Roger Andrews says:

    Euan: If you’re interested in a related issue you could check out the Hills Report on fuel poverty, which manipulated the numbers so that the Govt can claim that increased energy prices haven’t caused fuel poverty to increase.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/news/independent-review-on-fuel-poverty-final-report-published

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Roger, I’m working on a second post that looks at fuel poverty that is made more complex by the very fact that the rules got changed. But it is a complex picture since there has been investment in home improvement. Some things have got better, whilst others worse. Will have a post on fuel poverty, maybe later this, but right now I’m obsessing over 10Be.

  7. Hi Euan,

    Great graphs.

    “Figure 1 shows how excess winter deaths have been reduced from over 100,000 per year in 1950/51 to 31,000 per year today. This is a triumph for wealth created from fossil fuels and nuclear power combined with on the whole, enlightened social policies and human ingenuity.”

    Any component for global warming? I guess you could consider that to be an indirect benefit of world-wide fossil fuel use.

    Or you could retire to Pasadena. We are 26C today.

    Dave

    • Roger Andrews says:

      Any component for global warming? Nope.

      http://oi40.tinypic.com/5vp4dj.jpg

      Global warming only does bad things anyway. ;-)

      • Roger,

        Hey, no fair using real data. :) The CET swings are large, but I suspect it would be difficult to tease out an effect related to say, January temperature from the enormous continuing background improvement.

        Dave

        • Roger Andrews says:

          Dave:

          I probably should have posted this earlier, but better late than never. Here’s a comment on this subject I made at TBs talkshop a short while ago. (More real data, sorry):

          ” ‘Mr Cameron, people who should be enjoying a peaceful and secure retirement are dying of the cold.’

          ” I’ve been looking for data to back this claim up but haven’t been able to find any. What I was able to find shows the following:

          ” * Excess winter deaths in England & Wales have been decreasing since 1950.

          ” * Excess winter deaths are effectively uncorrelated with CET winter temperatures after 1990 (R=0.22).

          ” * Rapid increases in electricity and gas prices after 2004 had no detectable impact on excess winter deaths.

          http://oi42.tinypic.com/21dobph.jpg

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Dave, I think the contribution of anthropogenic warming to these statistics is zero. “Climate change” in the UK 1980 to 2010 was modulated by the North Atlantic Oscillation. The main weather culprit causing deaths are severe cold winters that look set to return, periodically – a result of the NAO switching back. The main concern in the UK has to be an ageing population and how to pay for their care during winter. It is possible we see the trend of winter deaths starting to rise again.

      • Hi Euan,

        The government report you linked was excellent. I first came to the UK as an undergraduate forty years ago, and the thing that is most striking to me on visiting now is the improvement in the quality of the residential housing and of the commercial buildings, particularly for heating, but also for mold and mildew. It’s great to be rich.

        Of course part of the problem I had in the 70s was that I came during the year of the miners’ strike when coal for heating was pretty limited.

        Dave

        • Euan Mearns says:

          Dave, as a third year student at the University of Aberdeen I stayed one year in a slum. The glass in the windows didn’t fit the frames that were rotting. I’m guessing around 1977, a cold winter, I still remember the water in my bedside glass freezing one night.

          You should check out my latest post, last chart is a puzzle for me.

          Euan

  8. TinyCO2 says:

    In your analysis of winter deaths you don’t really get to grips with why winter kills more people.

    Influenza is seasonal and there are several reasons why but there is no agreed single reason. Yes, it’s partly because people spend more time indoors together but since most epidemics start with school kids, you couldn’t argue they spend most of their school day outdoors in the summer term or winter. Influenza like cold dry air conditions. H7N9 is on the rise again in China now it’s winter, you can’t argue that people spend more time indoors with chickens. This year the US is having a very bad flu season, the UK a very mild one. The temperature has a huge affect. There’s even the theory that a lack of sunlight causes more influenza.

    Another serious winter killer is cold itself and not by freezing people to death. When people get colder their blood thickens, making strokes and heart attacks much more likely. Strokes and heart attacks don’t just kill immediately they often lead to reduced mobility and self care so people who apparently survive the acute problem, then suffer the kind of debilitation that effectively signs heir death warrant. While it’s almost unavoidable to prevent blood thickening entirely, people who cut their central heating will be making it more likely.

    Falls of course increase in winter and ice and snow are but one part of the problem. Think about councils that are cash strapped because they too have to pay rising energy bills. They make cut backs in road and pavement maintenance, gritting, transport and even elderly care directly. Falls are often the trigger for an elderly person to lose their life, either directly or as the first step in being unable to look after themselves. OK people have to die eventually but would you rather live a reasonably healthy, autonomous life until you’re in your eighties and beyond or die at least a decade sooner? Trust me, the closer you get to death the more you appreciate being able.

    So milder winters and plentiful, affordable energy do play their part in keeping us alive.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Tiny, tks for this insightful commentary.

      So milder winters and plentiful, affordable energy do play their part in keeping us alive.

      I am 100% with you here.

      E

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