Thursday, 20 November 2014

Winter is coming...

Jon Snow knew much of the perils that lurked in the coming winter. With his battle-hardened peers in the Night’s Watch, he could see from the wall, and through forays beyond, the danger that made its home in the cold and ice. But, apart from a bad case of frostbite, what did Jon Snow and those around him suffer as a result of? Well, a lack of shared ownership of the problem, poor collaboration and, as the issues intensified, a failure to use dwindling resources in a different, more efficient way.

You wouldn’t find many of us looking pensively into the distance, muttering 'winter is coming' during August. But, let’s face it, he had the right idea. We should have a joint sense of urgency, readiness and understanding of the challenges unique to this time of year.

Outside the world of  'Game of Thrones', the statistics around fuel poverty and winter deaths are sobering. In 2012, 30% of households in Wales (386,000 households) were estimated to be in fuel poverty. This is the equivalent to 54,000 more households than in 2008. Rising fuel prices have largely been counteracted by the increases in income and energy efficiency savings in the housing stock, and this has led to the increase in the number of fuel poor households.

Fuel poverty is a significant cause of excess winter deaths and, in 2012/13, there were 1,900 excess winter deaths in Wales. This was a 32% fall from the previous winter, which had seen the highest number since 1999/2000, but still above the 10 year average. 89% of these deaths involved people aged 65 or over, with the highest rate amongst those over 85 who constituted nearly 60% of the total.

There is much being done in an attempt to reduce these figures. For example, Care & Repair Cymru works with older people across Wales to support them to live in warm, safe and secure homes. This work is continued throughout the year; however, it is particularly pertinent heading toward the winter months. This year, Care & Repair agencies are offering free winter warm packs, containing a blanket and hot water bottle. These packs help to promote Care & Repair agencies as a service to help older people prepare for and manage safely through the winter.

Housing associations are doing much to offset the impact of fuel poverty, including:
  • Improving the energy efficiency of homes through the Welsh Housing Quality Standard and energy programmes such as Arbed
  • Helping tenants maximise their income through projects such as the Your Benefits are Changing (YBAC) campaign. YBAC helps tenants to claim benefits they are entitled to. One area of success has been the identification of the Warm Home Discount - YBAC last year successfully assisted over 914 people to claim a rebate which equates to an annual sum of £127,960. 
  • Helping to try to negate energy price increases through such actions as behavioural change for energy use. 

Across public services, the impacts of winter are likely to be felt more profoundly in the Welsh NHS. Winter preparedness is a key task for Health Boards, and a hot topic within the media and public sphere. But it’s important, particularly now in the context of prudent healthcare, that we all take responsibility as individuals and organisations to meeting the winter challenge.

In terms of working with housing associations:
  • Creating capacity for step down accommodation in Extra Care and Sheltered Housing
  • Placing housing professionals within hospital discharge teams to decrease delayed transfer of care
  • Working with housing associations to facilitate and coordinate community activity during the winter months
  • Partnering to ensure that advice and information is accessible in a range of community settings and media formats. 

Of course, this should all rightly go beyond what we plan as organisations and a mix of services. Last year, Public Health England called for 100,000 people to check on neighbours over the winter months.

We should be using this time to reignite our sense of community, decrease loneliness and isolation during months when these may be felt more profoundly and together contribute to managing the demand on GP or A&E service during these months. Everyone can help, from championing local services, clearing roads, communal snowman building, committing your long term future to the Night’s Watch – it’s the small gestures that will truly make a difference this Christmas. It could put a smile on someone’s face, it could save a life.

Matthew Kennedy
Policy Officer: Care, Support and Health

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