Part of my role at PHE is to coordinate the Cold weather plan for England on behalf of the health and care system. The plan offers a framework to reduce the risks from cold weather, for those working in the system at both frontline and at strategic levels. Whilst part of the plan covers emergency responses for when it’s really cold, it also covers actions to consider throughout the year.
Being cold at home plays a part in a whole range of health problems like flu, exacerbation of circulatory and respiratory conditions, mental health and wellbeing, social isolation and falls. Those most at risk include frail older adults and people with multiple health conditions, who find they may need greater support from health and social care services in winter, and may be fearful of losing their independence through ill-health. That said, it is not just the old and frail that experience cold-related health problems. Young families can also be affected; for instance a cold home environment has been linked with poor mental health and lower educational achievement in adolescents, poor infant weight gain and an increased incidence of respiratory infections in children with asthma.
Nurses, health visitors and midwives and other professional groups who visit people in their own home are often the best placed to spot problems in the home environment, and have asked for more information on how best to help. The number of different services and benefits available can be daunting and it can seem difficult to know where to start. This is why many local areas have established ‘single point of contact’ housing and health referral services that provide solutions tailored to the individual’s needs and preferences, an approach also recommended by NICE. As has been demonstrated in previous evaluations, these schemes can help individuals navigate an otherwise complex system, enabling individuals to access a whole range of support beyond the initial presenting problem.
So if you’re regularly in contact with groups who are more at risk from the cold, and you want to support people to stay well and independent this winter, find out what service your local area provides and how to make referrals. A catalogue of schemes that link fuel poverty and health is a good starting point, but your local authority and a whole range of local and national voluntary groups can also point you in the right direction.
Angie Bone, Head of Extreme Events and Health Protection, Public Health England