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 .
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