What price a life? Vulnerable at risk of winter deaths as energy prices soar

Close up of a thermostat being turned up by hand

Fuel poverty is growing in the UK whilst simultaneously, excess winter deaths are on the rise.

This isn’t scaremongering. According to the Office for National Statistics, there were approximately 31,100 winter deaths in the past year, and the fear is that this year, this astonishing figure is likely to increase.

The reason for this is that many people in society, particularly the frail, elderly and the disabled – in general terms, those that are considered to be the most vulnerable – will be simply without the means to pay for their gas and electricity.

Disabled people, including those who have experienced serious injuries, have been amongst the hardest hit by the UK’s recent austerity measures, with the chief executive of Scope quoting government figures of over half a million disabled people hit by devastating welfare cuts.

Meanwhile, the ‘Big Six’ gas and electricity energy suppliers – British Gas, SSE, EDF, Scottish Power, E.ON and nPower – have all, to varying degrees, announced considerable price hikes. These increases have been blamed on rising wholesale gas prices and government-imposed environmental and social levies.

Indeed, it has also not escaped the nation’s observations that these rises have conveniently come into effect just in time for winter.

With lower income and greater expenditure, the vulnerable face a challenging winter ahead. According to comparison site uSwitch, during the past year approximately 69% of households rationed their heating to cut costs, and the forecast this year is likely to be in the region of 83%.

Sadly it seems, many vulnerable people will be forced to make a choice about whether to buy necessities such as food or to pay for their heating. In such circumstances, many will elect to try to keep warm via more cost-effective yet generally inferior methods, such as with extra blankets or layers of clothing.

And this is one of the root causes of excess winter deaths. For example, the majority last year were the result of conditions that develop or become more prevalent during colder conditions; colds and influenza in particular, or in some (albeit isolated) cases, even hypothermia.

So whilst cost-cutting arguably has its benefits in an economic sense, to do so at the cost of human life seems somewhat perverse, especially when the energy companies’ profits are taken into consideration.

In 2012, energy prices rose by an average of £168 and profits show no indication of slowing down at all; jumping exorbitantly from 2.8% in 2011 to a staggering 4.3% in 2012.

In fact, prices have increased fivefold over just the past four years, a truly astonishing statistic, so it comes as no surprise that there has been almost universal outrage at the recent announcements.

Granted, energy companies should be able to run their business in a viable manner, to cover rising costs – but surely there should be no guarantee of increased profits.

The very real fear is that these energy hikes won’t be paid with money, but with vulnerable people’s lives.

If the projected 2013/2014 excess winter death figures prove to be correct, the question may be how many deaths do they believe their future profits will be worth?