A failure to tackle soaring energy bills could set back health equality by decades and see the NHS faced with a “humanitarian crisis” of people unable to keep warm or eat properly, NHS leaders and public health experts have warned.
With one help service receiving calls from almost 100 people in a single day who had had their power disconnected, there are fears that many clinically vulnerable people could die or be forced to stay in hospital because it is unsafe to send them back to a freezing home.
In an unprecedented intervention, the NHS Confederation wrote to Nadhim Zahawi, the chancellor, on Friday to warn that a failure to act would pile pressure on stretched health services, as poverty, cold and missed meals pushed up rates of sickness.
The organisation, which represents the health service across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, said there was also a wider risk of severe and long-term damage to children’s life chances, further exacerbating already stark health inequalities.
Matthew Taylor, the NHS Confederation chief executive, said the forecast rise in energy bills to about £4,200 annually for the average household would come when health service was already “likely to experience the most difficult winter on record”.
He 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.”
Public health officials are deeply alarmed at the potential lifelong impact on children because of the stress of poverty and deprivation, an experience shown to affect brain development and increase the likelihood of ill health, suicide and substance abuse in adult life.
Alice Wiseman, the director of public health in Gateshead, said disadvantaged communities in her area had already faced “a tsunami” of challenges in the past few years, and she was deeply worried about the impact of energy bills.
“The stress and anxiety of poverty can have such a long-term effect,” she said. “This is our next public health crisis. If nothing is done, it would set public health back by decades.”
Alison Dunn, chief executive of Citizens Advice Gateshead, said the service nationally had received 95 calls in one day from people saying they could no longer add credit to pre-payment meters and so were without power.
In Gateshead alone, the scale of the crisis was hard to comprehend, especially for more vulnerable or disabled people, she added: “We had a lady who said she was frightened to use her stairlift, and was going to have to choose where she lived in the house, but the bathroom is upstairs and the kitchen is downstairs.
“These are people who are already on the edge, and it’s still the summer. When winter comes, there are some people for whom cold homes are potentially life-threatening. There will be people who cannot be released from hospitals into cold homes. There will be deaths.”
Dunn’s team has begun working with hospitals to provide an advice service for people with respiratory conditions who cannot afford to have a warm home, she said: “But there’s more work than we can do. How we can possibly respond to this level of need?”
Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the NHS Confederation had been “absolutely right to raise concerns about the impact on health”. “Families are really worried about how they are going to afford soaring energy bills this winter,” he said. “Many will be plunged into poverty by this cost of living crisis and be forced to make choices between eating and heating.”
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed a freeze on bills by fixing the current price cap. Ministers have offered a blanket £400 grant, with some extra help for poorer households. However, with Boris Johnson departing as prime minister in just over a fortnight, any further measures would be left to his successor, either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.
Sunak has promised to reduce VAT on bills, while Truss’s main offer is a national insurance cut, which would disproportionately help wealthier people.
A study released this week estimates that by January, two-thirds of all UK households will face fuel poverty, which means energy costs exceed 10% of a household’s net income. For pensioner couples, this would rise to 86.4%, and to 90.4% for single parents with two or more children.