Spiralling fuel, energy, food and other bills this winter could lead to rising numbers of people falling sick unless the government provides more help, NHS leaders have warned.
The NHS Confederation has said the cost of living crisis risks also turning into a public health emergency unless the government acts.
The worry is that, if households are not safeguarded from unaffordable energy price hikes, it will fall to local NHS and social care services to pick up the pieces, with increased hospital admissions and demand on GP surgeries, A&E departments, ambulances, care homes and other social care services, the confederation has warned.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, 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 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,” he added.
In the letter to chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, the NHS leaders say that rapidly rising energy prices, alongside other cost of living pressures, will leave individuals and families across the UK facing impossible choices, such as either heating their homes or reducing spending on food and other essentials.
They warn that if people are forced to live in cold homes and if they cannot afford nutritious food, then their health will quickly deteriorate.
Cost of living crisis
They are very concerned that widespread fuel poverty will increase the already high number of annual deaths associated with cold homes – estimated at around 10,000 a year.
With the NHS already expecting one of the toughest winters on record – because of the high demand on health services combined with predicted high levels of flu, norovirus and potentially further Covid outbreaks – a failure to restrict energy price hikes will make the situation worse by increasing demand on already pressured health and social care services, the confederation said.
As well as leading to more sickness and illness, it has warned this will have a major impact on mental health and wellbeing and in social care.
Beatrice Fraenkel, chair of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, said: “There is a strong correlation between rising energy prices and the health and wellbeing of the communities we serve and belong to. In turn this has a significant bearing on the increased demands placed on our health services.
“If people are unable to afford to adequately heat their homes or eat well, they are increasingly likely to fall ill and require the care of the NHS which is already under significant pressure. Whilst we as employers are doing all we can to mitigate against the situation this crisis is proving a real challenge for our staff personally and professionally.”
Jeremy Vanes, chair of Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, added: “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,” he said.
Impact on those living with lung conditions
Responding to NHS Confederation’s letter, Henry Gregg, director of external affairs at the charity Asthma + Lung UK, highlighted that the cost of living crisis could take a particular toll on the health of people living with lung conditions.
“Winter can be a deadly time for the one in five people in the UK with lung conditions, as cold air is one of the most common triggers that can lead to life-threatening attacks and flare-ups,” he said.
“Cold weather can also contribute to mould and damp – a trigger for around 2.5 million people with asthma in the UK. The best way for people with lung conditions to stay well is to ensure they take their medication and keep their houses warm, but rising costs could leave people choosing to skip their medication or turn off their heating.
“We’ve seen a 150% increase in calls to our helpline from people with lung conditions worried about this and needing financial and welfare benefits advice,” Gregg warned.