Monday blog: Did Newton Emerson get it wrong on fuel poverty?

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By Brian Pelan, editor, VIEW

Writer Newton Emeron’s assertion in his recent column for the Irish News (Saturday, March 28) that: “There is no evidence that ‘fuel poverty’ ever kills anyone in Northern Ireland” took me by surprise.

The piece was under 130 words. This also surprised me given the complex nature of the subject.

The article was in response to a claim by Age Sector Platform that fuel poverty kills thousands of people each winter.

It’s clear from the research into this issue, including a term known as Excess Winter Mortality (EWM), that the relationship between temperature, influenza and winter mortality is complex.

But it’s also clear that the cold can have various physiological effects, which may lead to death in vulnerable people. A report in 1993 from the Office for National Statistics found that colder home temperature was associated with increased blood pressure in older people.

Another report noted that cold causes haemoconcentration, which leads to thrombosis, and that cold can also lower the immune system’s resistance to respiratory infections.

Additionally, the level of influenza circulating in the population increases in winter. In vulnerable groups, for example in the elderly or those with pre-existing health problems, influenza can lead to life-threatening complications, such as bronchitis or secondary bacterial pneumonia.

Newton also writes, “as excess winter mortality is linked to flu and 70 per cent of all deaths take place in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, these statistics (the claims by Age Sector Platform), mean so such thing”.

I presume that many of the elderly, before they went to a hospice or hospital, lived in their own homes. I am sure that Newton would accept that many older people struggle to pay their heating bills. And if they can’t keep warm it will have an effect on their health – both mentally and physically.

The cold reduces strength and dexterity, and therefore increases the risk of accidents and injuries
among the elderly, particularly falls. Living alone is also a risk factor in excess winter deaths.

It’s also clear that at a time of austerity and cutbacks in welfare, we are likely to see those on lower incomes suffer more, including the elderly, many of whom exist only on a State pension.

Christine Liddell and Susan Langdon, from the University of Ulster, in a report, ‘Tackling Fuel Poverty in Northern Ireland: An Area-Based Approach to Finding Households Most in Need’, said: “Northern Ireland has the highest prevalence of fuel poverty in the UK and one of the highest in the EU, with the current estimate indicating that 42% of households in Northern Ireland are experiencing fuel poverty (NIHE, 2013).

The argument for assistance to alleviate fuel poverty is overwhelming. We should all get behind it, including Newton.

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