Cold homes this winter pose a direct threat to the health of children in the UK as rising energy prices force more than half of households into fuel poverty, a report has warned.
Analysis from University College London’s Institute of Health Equity predicts that 66% of households – or 18 million people – are expected to experience fuel poverty by January 2023.
As families make difficult decisions about heating their homes, there is a ‘significant humanitarian crisis’ for millions of children who will be put at risk of respiratory illness and other health consequences, the report warns.
Writing in the BMJ, Sir Michael Marmot, director of the Institute and Professor Ian Sinha, a respiratory consultant at Liverpool’s Alder Hey children’s hospital who co-authored the report warned black and ethnic minority groups, households with children, people on low incomes, and people with disabilities would be particularly at risk from soaring energy costs this winter.
In children, cold homes can also mean the start of lifelong health inequalities for respiratory problems, as well as having an impact on development and mental health, they said.
They called for urgent financial support for vulnerable households to protect against the ‘catastophic threat’ of having their gas and electricity cut off.
And they added: ‘Local level health providers should implement guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on health risks of cold homes with immediate effect.’
The report said there was a ‘window of opportunity’ in childhood for optimal respiratory development.
‘This is impaired by problems associated with cold, substandard or overcrowded housing such as viruses, dust, mould and pollution.
‘When we add in factors such as cutting back on food to pay the gas bills, and the mental and educational impact of cold houses, the picture is bleaker still.
‘Without meaningful action and swift action cold housing will have dangerous consequences for many children now and throughout their life-course.’
The report estimates that in 2020, one in five households with dependent children experienced fuel poverty.
Rates have been increasing since summer 2021 but by the start of next year more than half of households will be in this position.
In 2019, the Local Government Association was estimated that the NHS spends £2.5bn a year on treating illnesses directly linked to cold, damp and dangerous homes.
It comes amid warnings that GP practices may end up tens of thousands of pounds in deficit this winter amid rising inflation and fuel costs.