Cost of living: NHS bosses ask Government to take action on energy bills as UK faces ‘public health emergency’
Healthcare bosses have warned that unless the Government takes action on rising energy prices, the cost of living crisis will put additional pressure on an already-overwhelmed NHS.
In an “unprecedented” appeal, the NHS Confederation today (19 August) sent a letter to ministers warning that vulnerable households will have to choose between food and warmth this winter.
The organisation has warned that if people are forced to live in cold homes and cannot afford nutritious - or sufficient - food, their health will quickly deteriorate.
There is also a concern that widespread fuel poverty will increase the high number of annual deaths associated with cold homes – currently estimated at around 10,000 a year - which will put extra demand on “already very fragile services.”
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said: “The country is facing a humanitarian crisis.
“Many people could face the awful choice between skipping meals to heat their homes and having to live in cold, damp and very unpleasant conditions.
“This in turn could lead to outbreaks of illness and sickness around the country and widen health inequalities, worsen children’s life chances, and leave an indelible scar on local communities.”
Mr Taylor added that these outbreaks of illness will strike “just as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record”.
This comes as energy experts have warned that the price cap, which currently sits at £1,971, could rise to approximately £3,500 in October and to more than £4,200 in January.
The Government has already brought in emergency help, such as a £650 cost of living payment for eligible households, a £400 energy bills discount to all taxpayers, and a £150 council tax rebate.
But since these measures were introduced, the cost of living crisis has continued to spiral - meaning ministers are facing increased calls to freeze bills or provide more support to households.
Tory leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are also under pressure to outline their plans to help families with the soaring cost of living, but their next steps will not be confirmed until the UK’s new Prime Minister is announced on 5 September.
It is highly unusual for NHS leaders to comment on “political” topics, but Mr Taylor told BBC Radio 4 that the confederation felt it had a “responsibility to be clear about what is likely to be happening in terms of health needs and the capacity of the NHS to cope.”
He continued: “It’s our duty to flag the fact that it looked as though we could be heading for additional demand on a system which is already, even in the middle of August, finding it very difficult to meet demand.”
The letter, addressed to Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Health Secretary Steve Barclay, said that health bosses in the UK are “already seeing huge suffering in our local communities because of the cost-of-living crisis”.
It said that the Government’s proposed policy of £400 paid in monthly instalments will not be sufficient and called on ministers to safeguard households who cannot absorb energy prices rising by up to 82%.
Mr Taylor added that the NHS Confederation is speaking on behalf of hundreds of health leaders across the UK.
Jeremy Vanes for example, chairman of Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The population my organisation provides mental health services for is amongst the least wealthy in the UK, with over 45% of people living within the lowest income bands.
“We anticipate some will even struggle to keep their homes in the year ahead, such is the affordability crisis.
“Unquestionably this situation will have wide health effects, and further support should be well targeted.”
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has also warned of the impact that the cost of living crisis will have on healthcare services, and has called for the reintroduction of face masks to protect the NHS from Covid-19.
A Government spokesman said: “We know that rising prices are affecting how far people’s incomes go, which is why we have taken action to help households with £37 billion worth of support, which includes targeted support to help people through the difficult winter ahead.”
The spokesperson explained that eight million of the most vulnerable households will see £1,200 extra support, provided in instalments across the year, and all households will receive £400 over the winter to help with energy bills.
“That’s on top of action earlier this year,” the spokesperson continued, “including a record fuel duty cut and a National Insurance cut worth up to £330 a year for the typical employee.
“We are also working closely with the NHS at pace to ensure we are ready for the pressures ahead by increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharge and using new innovations such as virtual wards.”