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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 December, 2003, 10:01 GMT
Cold kills 'thousands' in a week
Many pensioners struggle to stay warm in winter
More than 2,500 people in England and Wales are likely to have died in the past week as a direct result of cold weather, health forecasters say.

Research published on Tuesday by the Faculty of Public Health and the Met Office shows they will have died from treatable ailments.

It says a higher proportion of the UK's population dies as a result of the cold than in either Finland or Russia.

The researchers say the "needless" deaths put a strain on the NHS.

Most are caused by heart or breathing problems brought on by the cold and damp.

Professor Sian Griffiths, President of the Faculty of Public Health, said as many as 50,000 people could die "unnecessarily" in the UK this winter.

Estimated deaths 15 to 22 December
North East - 145
North West - 320
Yorkshire and Humberside - 252
East Midlands - 198
West Midlands - 272
East - 268
London - 302
South East - 410
South West - 245
Wales - 148
Source: Faculty of Public Health
"The UK remains one of the worst countries in the world at coping with unseasonal low temperatures," she said.

"Although the government has shown commitment to tackling the problem, it has not given sufficient priority to such an important public health issue and its approach remains far too unco-ordinated."

But Health Minister Stephen Ladyman said Britain had a higher death rate from the cold because "winter always takes us by surprise".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have made strenuous efforts to get this message over, to get older people to take up the grants that we have made available and to take up their flu jabs. The message goes on and on."

Estimates for Northern Ireland and Scotland were unavailable.

But 2,510 people in Scotland and 1,300 people in Northern Ireland died from cold-related illnesses last winter.

Gas cut off

On Monday it emerged that an elderly couple in south London died a few weeks after their gas was cut off due to non-payment of a 140 bill.

George Bates, 89, and his 86-year old wife Gertrude were found on 18 October in the Tooting home they had shared for 64 years.

All of us must be vigilant at the moment to look out for family, friends and neighbours who may be suffering
Professor Sian Griffiths
Faculty of Public Health

British Gas said the Data Protection Act prohibited them from passing information on the situation to social services.

Former director general of Age Concern England, Baroness Greengross, called for a review of the act, saying many professionals do not understand what they can and cannot say.

She told Today: "At the moment it looks as though we're protecting data at the expense of people.

"Unfortunately, we had the awful tragic items that we heard about last week in connection with the Soham case, and now this week another one where people just don't know if they can inform the authorities about what they know - with disastrous results.

"This is something that we can't afford to remain with us."

HAVE YOUR SAY
It's a source of shame to the country that this should happen on such a large scale.
Mike Griffin, London, UK

The Baroness was joined in her call for a review by chairman of the health select committee, David Hinchliffe, who said he was "astonished" British Gas had been unable to pass on information.

Icy patches

The Met Office's research on cold weather deaths in the run-up to Christmas in England and Wales was led by its health forecaster, Dr William Bird.

He provides information for hospitals and GPs about the weather and its effect on admissions.

For example, when it gets cold, casualty units should expect more cases of cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

CHRISTMAS WEATHER
Tuesday: Cloudy and misty with a rapid thaw
Christmas Eve: Milder but light rain in some parts
Christmas Day: Fair day and slightly milder again

Much of Britain was hit by snow falls and freezing temperatures on Monday.

Snow fell from Scotland to as far south as Suffolk, with mostly eastern parts affected. The Yorkshire Moors had 30 cm (almost a foot) of snow.

Gritters were out in force overnight on motorways and main roads, but forecasters said there had been an overnight thaw.

On Tuesday morning a spokeswoman for AA Roadwatch said some minor roads in Scotland were still blocked by snow and advised drivers in the worst-hit areas to drive with "extreme care".

Professor Griffiths said: "All of us must be vigilant at the moment to look out for family, friends and neighbours who may be suffering.

"Often fatal illnesses develop two or three days after a cold snap has finished."

Sandra Gidley, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for older people, said: "Older people deserve a dignified and healthy old-age.

"But the frailest and most vulnerable elderly people are particularly at risk in the winter.

"The Government must urgently address pensioner poverty and living conditions."


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Vicki Young
"Pneumonia and heart problems are the main cause of winter death"


Stephen Ladyman, Health Minister
"People have to plan for the cold weather"



SEE ALSO:
Q&A: Cold weather deaths
23 Dec 03  |  Health
Couple with no gas found dead
22 Dec 03  |  London
Aid urged over cold deaths
27 Nov 03  |  Northern Ireland
Charity warning over winter deaths
27 Nov 03  |  Scotland
Cold weather 'killed thousands'
30 Oct 03  |  Health


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