It’s not surprising Ed Miliband launched his final 100 days’ campaign last week with a big speech on the NHS, making clear the health service is Labour’s number one election priority. Polls have shown it’s a key issue for voters, and that they trust Labour far more than the Conservatives on the issue. But if he really wants to show Labour are the party to save the health service, and be financially responsible too, Miliband must up his game on something far geekier: home insulation.
It isn’t a coincidence the A&E crisis last month blew up in the depths of winter. People are more likely to get ill, and ill more severely, when it’s cold. The most depressing thing is that so much of the extra sickness in winter and increased pressure on the health service, would be much less severe, or altogether preventable, if only everyone lived in a home they could afford to heat. But, at the moment, around six million UK households on low incomes are struggling in heat-leaking homes that are impossible to keep warm. And despite declaring ‘war on cold homes’, Labour’s actual promised policies look much more like appeasement. Figures show that even if every policy they’ve promised on energy efficiency is delivered, poor people will still be shivering in drafty homes for another 25 years.
This isn’t just a problem of chilly toes or the odd extra sniffle: cold homes make healthy people seriously ill, and turn manageable conditions like asthma, or high blood pressure, into life-threatening ones. The worst affected are the old and very young. As well as suffering increased risk of chest infections, strokes, and heart attacks due to cold homes, elderly people become less agile, and more likely to fall and break a bone. Significantly higher rates of hospital admission are seen among babies living in cold housing, and they’re more likely to be underweight, and develop more slowly.
Quite apart from their effects on people’s lives, cold-related conditions present a huge cost to the NHS. National Energy Action – the UK’s foremost fuel poverty charity – recently wrote to the Prime Minister to say the overall cost of cold homes to the NHS is a shocking £1.5bn annually. In the context of a reported NHS shortfall of £30bn by 2020, that’s hardly peanuts.
Ed Miliband spoke passionately last week of the ‘need to invest’ in an NHS that can be ‘sustainable and successful’, and ‘keeps up with the challenges of our time’. So why, despite the clear importance of warm homes for the nation’s health, is that the opposite of Labour’s approach to dealing with fuel poverty? Why must Labour’s war on cold homes be fought, as Caroline Flint proudly declared at Labour Conference, ‘without spending an extra penny’? It doesn’t make sense.
To stop people shivering in their homes in a reasonable timescale, we need a programme which will start by insulating four million homes by 2020, including grant funding for two million of the UK’s poorest households. By 2025, we need to make sure every home occupied by a low-income household has been insulated. Yes, it’ll cost money. But the rewards are huge. Not only are there big savings to the NHS, but a major new economic study reveals that a programme like this would be fantastic for the economy, creating over 100,000 jobs across the country, and in time would even bring in a profit to the Treasury.
In failing to have ambitious enough plans to end the misery of millions of families shivering in poorly-insulated homes, Ed Miliband is not only missing a huge opportunity to save the NHS billions of pounds. He’s also missing the chance to show he can say ‘boo’ to Mr Osborne, and make big, bold, decisions when it matters.
Sophie Neuburg is an energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth