In today’s Guardian, Seumas Milne makes the claim that
“Thousands of old people will certainly die this winter as a result of the corporate stitch-up that is called a regulated market”.
Whatever the merits of his wider case, this struck me a rather bold claim. So I decided to have a look at the Excess Winter deaths data to see what it said.
The good news is that things are getting much better. Excess winter deaths are in a long term decline.
Whatever other evils the ”regulated market” is responsible for, an increase in the number of deaths doesn’t seem to be one of them. Indeed, since the energy market was in state hands, average excess winter deaths have fallen by some 6,000 a year.
If you were a total idiot, therefore, you could even claim that privatised utilities have saved lives.
Of course, only a moron would make such a generalised claim. Things are far more complicated than that.
Note, that although the trend is clear, the annual levels change dramatically.
This seems to be related primarily to influenza outbreaks. One of the pieces of bad news is that it looks like the figures for last year will show an increase in winter deaths to the highest levels since 2009, apparently due to influenza.
Next, there does not seem to be an obvious relationship between domestic fuel prices and excess deaths. Below we can see the real terms cost of various fuels. As you can see, they are rising at the same time as excess winter deaths are falling.
Nor has there been a recent obvious link between mortality rates and average winter temperature. As the ONS say in their commentary on the latest data (my emphasis):
“There is no clear relationship between the average winter temperature and the level of excess winter mortality, as the number of excess winter deaths in 2011/12 was only slightly lower than the previous two years, despite the overall winter temperature being much milder.”
Nor, as we shall see, are excess winter death clearly related to socio-economic status.
However, even if excess winter deaths are on a long term decline and there’s no obvious relationship with the price of domestic energy, average temperature, or poverty, there’s no reason to be satisfied.
It’s obvious excess winter deaths are still a major problem. There are about ten times as many winter deaths as deaths from road traffic accidents.
Further, it’s clear that excess winter deaths are preventable. Cold countries, like Finland, have far fewer than we do. We can do something about this.
As progressives, that should matter to us. It should matter a hell of a lot.
So if it’s not energy prices, the weather, or poverty, who dies, and why?
The older you are, the more likely you are to die. Of the deaths in 2010/11, three-quarters were among the over 75s, and almost half of the total were among the over-85s.
Next, the older your house, the more likely you are to die.
Why? Because old houses have worse insulation. This might explain why there’s no clear relationship between economic status and excess deaths. As the Marmot Review for Friends of the Earth say:
“It has been noted by researchers that EWDs do not usually relate to socio-economic deprivation…the lack of a significant relationship between deprivation and excess winter mortality suggests that in the UK those who are deprived often live in social housing, which is, on average, more energy efficient.”
However, whether you are well off or poorer, living in a cold home does mean you are more likely to die. As one academic survey found:
‘The findings provide strong, although not conclusive, evidence that winter mortality and cold-related mortality are linked to sub-optimal home heating’
The evidence suggest then, what is intuitively obvious. Old people in cold, old homes are more likely to die in winter.
However, if, much less intuitively, the price of energy isn’t clearly correlated with increased deaths, (as you’d expect it to be without other measures), what is causing death rates to fall?
It looks like the main reason could be improved energy efficiency. As the ONS say in their commentary on the recent data:
“According to the English Housing Survey in 2010 a greater proportion of homes had cavity wall insulation, modern central heating and double-glazing compared with 1996, meaning homes are becoming more energy efficient. Also, a greater proportion of homes had loft insulation in 2010, compared with 2003″
Why? Because the last Government made a conscious policy choice to act in this area. As the ONS add:
“This is may be related to the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) which requires all domestic energy suppliers with a customer base in excess of 250,000 customers to make savings in the amount of CO2 emitted by householders through professionally installed insulation measures Between April 2008 and July 2012 it has been reported that this scheme enabled over 2 million British homes to get cavity wall and loft insulation installed. These improvements to homes may have altered the relationship between the weather outdoors and winter mortality.”
By the way, who introduced the reduction target and pushed for the refurbishment of inefficient homes?
International evidence suggests the same thing.
The best way to prevent winter deaths is to reduce the wasteful consumption of energy. There is probably also a role for targeted support to the extremely elderly (especially in private accommodation or older homes) to help with the short term cost of energy over the winter.
I also should put in a word here for the much maligned Decent Homes programme.
This poured a huge amount of money into upgrading Social housing, and made heating a key part of that programme, including double glazing and so on. This may well have made a bigger difference to the winter death rate than either bills or building more houses would have done. It’s not a particularly popular programme at the moment, as building more houses is more politically centre-stage than improving existing stock, but it I felt it deserved a mention.
I’d also imagine that effective anti-influenza programmes, strong emergency services and strong social networks and services would all also make a difference.
So Seumas Milne is wrong. While we can’t know if there’ll be an influenza outbreak, or a sudden extremely cold snap, or winter storms, it’s not true that ‘thousands will certainly die‘ this winter because of privatisation of energy utilities.
In fact, the numbers of winter deaths have been falling over time, even as energy bills have risen.
They’re falling though, because of sensible, careful decisions by a progressive, interventionist government.
It’s this that’s made the difference, not ownership of utilities.
Actually, it’s something of a social democrat success story. But not one we’re likely to hear much of, I suspect.