News story

Plan launched to keep us healthy this winter

The ‘Cold weather plan for England’ 2011, which aims to protect people’s health throughout the cold winter months

The ‘Cold weather plan for England’, which aims to protect people’s health throughout the cold winter months, was launched today - the official start of winter.

The cross-Government initiative reminds all local communities and the NHS how best to prepare to keep people healthy and warm in their homes.

Helping the most vulnerable

The focus is on helping the most vulnerable by:

  • making an extra £10 million available to support existing Government schemes for those at risk of fuel poverty - for example grants for insulation or heating improvements provided through the Warm Front scheme run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change
  • creating a new £20 million fund - supported by Age UK - for local authorities and charities to address cold housing.  Bids will be invited for innovative new ways to help vulnerable older people, people with disabilities or families with young children - reaching those falling through the gaps of existing schemes
  • launching a Cold Weather Plan - which will be jointly run with the Met Office and Health Protection Agency  - to advise people how to stay healthy thus relieving the pressures on the NHS that winter always brings
  • providing information on all aspects of keeping safe and well in winter via the Getting Ready for Winter pages on the Directgov website

Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, said: “We want everyone to get ready for winter and be prepared before temperatures drop.

“Being cold in your own home can be miserable and impacts on your health.  We cannot look at health in isolation. We must look at the bigger picture, which is why I am making £30 million available to help keep homes warm.

“Older people and those with long-term illnesses are particularly vulnerable to the cold and we need to be aware - within families, in communities and across the NHS - of how we can help others when the winter temperatures drop.

“Every year, there is a 20% increase in deaths in the winter in England. By working together, this coordinated plan will help protect those most in need, we are determined to do all we can to achieve this.”

The impact of severe cold

Last December, according to Met Office figures, was the coldest December in the UK since 1910 and the winter before was the coldest since 1978.

While many associate cold weather with hypothermia, deaths directly caused by hypothermia represent only a small proportion.

Severe cold weather can be dangerous for vulnerable groups such as older people and those with serious illnesses. It’s important for people to look after their health as the winter months can mean:

  • an increase in heart attacks and stroke - accounting for 40% of excess winter deaths
  • pressure on GPs - GP visits for respiratory illnesses increase by up to 19% for every 1°C drop below 5°C of the mean temperature
  • more pressure on the NHS - in 2009/10, the cost of emergency admissions due to falls on snow and ice was estimated at £42million
  • it is estimated that over £850 million is spent by the NHS each year as a result of the impact of cold housing on people’s health

Cold weather alert service launched

The Cold Weather Plan is supported by a Met Office cold weather alert service that starts today and runs until the end of March.

The alert service has four levels ranging from ‘Level 1 winter preparedness - long term planning’ to ‘Level 4 major incident - exceptional widespread winter weather causing disruptions’. Level 4 is more severe than the ‘big freeze’ at the end of last year.

Together the plan and alerts aim to prepare, alert and prevent the effects of winter weather on people’s health by helping keep people well. Further details of the action needed at each level can be found on the Met Office website.

Top tips for coping during cold weather

Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said: “Keeping warm in the winter is important to avoid serious or life-threatening illnesses.

“Healthcare staff and care home managers need to make sure that patients and residents are able to keep warm during cold weather spells.

“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.”

Here are some top tips:

  • Check you have had your flu jab if you are aged 65 or over, pregnant, have certain medical conditions, live in a residential or nursing home, or are the main carer for an older or disabled person
  • Check you have shoes that grip well to prevent falls in cold weather; wear several layers of clothes to stay warm; and stay active in your home
  • Good hand hygiene can help prevent the spread of norovirus
  • Check you have had your heating and cooking appliances serviced - carbon monoxide is a killer
  • Check NHS choices for health guidance on winter ailments (flu, winter vomiting, cold temperatures)

Read the Cold weather plan for England: Protecting health and reducing harm from severe cold

Read the press release

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