Calls for government to take action now to prevent further unnecessary deaths next summer
More than 2,800 more people aged 65 and over died in England during this summer’s heatwaves than would have otherwise, figures show, marking the highest excess death toll caused by heat in at least two decades.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) recorded 43,755 non-Covid-related deaths of people in the 65-plus age group during this summer’s heatwaves in England. This was 2,809 more deaths than would be expected based on the surrounding fortnight, the highest number since the introduction of the heatwave plan for England in 2004. Statistics released simultaneously by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of people who died across all age groups in England and Wales was 6.2% higher than normal for the time of year, compared with the five-year average.
During the second heatwave, between 10 and 25 July – in which a new UK record temperature of 40.3C (104.5F) was set at Coningsby, Lincolnshire – overall excess deaths were 10.4% higher. During the July heatwave, an extra 1,206 over-65-year-olds died – 7% more than would have been expected to based on the days surrounding the heatwave, according to the UKHSA. The 8-17 August heatwave was the most devastating for older people, with 1,459 excess deaths (excluding Covid-19 deaths) – 15% higher than would have otherwise been expected.
Both the ONS and the UKHSA defined a “heat period” as one with a level 3 heat health alert or where the mean central England temperature (CET) was greater than 20C. The ONS figures for all age groups found that each hot period was followed by a period of lower-than-expected deaths – suggesting that some deaths of vulnerable people were brought forward because of the heat.
The NHS came under increasing pressure during the hotter weather, with early warning systems data showing a rise in admissions for heatstroke and sunstroke, ambulance callouts for people affected by heat, and the number of people consulting NHS 111 online about heat exposure or sunburn. A study by scientists at the World Weather Attribution group previously found the UK heatwave in July was made at least 10 times more likely as a result of human-induced climate change.
Bob Ward, from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “These figures confirm the fear that the record-breaking temperatures this summer caused a record number of deaths. Most of these deaths were preventable and the government refused to take additional precautions even though it knew its heatwave plan was not fit for purpose.
“The threat to lives and livelihoods from summer heatwaves is undoubtedly increasing due to climate change. The prime minister must now act decisively by initiating a national heat risk management strategy that can be properly put in place ahead of next summer and prevent further unnecessary suffering and death across the country.”
Isabel Oliver, the chief scientific officer at the UKHSA, said: “These estimates show clearly that high temperatures can lead to premature death for those who are vulnerable. Higher excess deaths occurred during the hottest days this year and a warming climate means we must adapt to living safely with hotter summers in the future. “Prolonged periods of hot weather are a particular risk for elderly people, those with heart and lung conditions, or people who are unable to keep themselves cool, such as people with learning disabilities and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Dr Friederike Otto, a senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, said: “These numbers are not surprising. We’ve known that heatwaves are extremely deadly and despite the warnings issued this year, the UK is not prepared for heat like this. The houses most of us live in are poorly insulated, we have not been educated even on the most basic things, like closing the windows during the day in a heatwave, so it is sad, but not surprising that so many people died.
“Making our cities livable in heatwaves should be a high priority, because this summer was just the start. It would not have been as hot if it wasn’t for climate change this year, and we will continue to experience summers like this with increasing frequency.”