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Excess Winter Deaths

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2016

Last week, NHS England and Public Health England launched the Stay Well This Winter campaign, which last year reached 98% of the over 65s. This year, for the first time, children in year 3 will be offered free flu vaccine, which means that an additional 600,000 children will be protected this winter, making this the largest children’s flu vaccination programme to date. The Government also provide practical support for those most at risk, including winter fuel payments and the warm home discount scheme. We are also working with the NHS and local authorities to implement our cold weather plan, which is poised to respond to pressures on vital health and social care services this winter.

It is a national disgrace that so many people die needlessly in this country as a result of the cold each year—43,900 people died over the winter of 2014-15. When will somebody in Government accept some responsibility, show some leadership and act decisively to reduce the appalling number of people who die each winter as a result of the cold?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the interest that he takes in this subject. I know that he has a petition currently running in his local area. We do take very seriously the additional pressures placed on the NHS primarily by the winter weather but also by disease prevalence, particularly flu. We started winter planning for this coming winter early in the summer. We have regular updates, which I run, and I report to the Secretary of State on how those plans are going. I can assure him that we are taking as many steps as we can to ensure that we are on top of this issue this winter.

As part of the plans to reduce and prevent deaths during the winter, what changes have been made with regard to the winter fuel payments for those eligible residents living in the Mediterranean?

My right hon. Friend refers to the changes that we introduced under this Government with effect from last year, 2015-16, to reduce the eligibility for those British citizens living in warmer climates around the Mediterranean, which I know caused him considerable concern. I am pleased to be able to tell him that the change in policy last year reduced the amount paid under the winter fuel payments by 70% compared with the previous year to those people living in the European economic area.

One way of preventing excess winter deaths would be to ensure that people can go to their local pharmacy for advice, essential medicines and flu vaccines. Plans to cut pharmacy budgets will hit Dudley hard, with just 1%—one out of Dudley’s 100 pharmacies—getting extra support, compared with 40% in places such as Chesham and Hampshire. Of the thousands of local residents who completed my survey, 97% said that they opposed these cuts. Why will the Minister not listen to the people of Dudley and sort this out?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman included in his survey the fact that the reduction in the establishment payment to each pharmacy will be of the order of £200 a week from 1 December, and £400 a week from 1 April. How many of those pharmacies in Dudley will not be able to sustain that reduction in Government subsidy? We use community pharmacies to undertake flu vaccinations for which they will be paid.

What can be done to reduce the effect of winter pressures on the bed state of our acute hospitals and thus reduce the awful phenomenon of bed blocking this winter?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are taking steps, in particular through the sustainable transformation plans, to increase the integration of social care and the health sector. For this winter, we are working hard on delayed transfers of care, to try to ensure that there is more rapid patient flow through our hospitals. That involves closer integration with social care professionals to encourage quicker discharges from the hospitals.

One way of making sure that people do not die in the winter or at any other time is for this Government to concentrate on keeping hospitals open, thereby saving the beds. In that context, why does the Secretary of State refuse to answer the question why hospitals such as Bolsover and another half a dozen in Derbyshire are secretly being closed and Ministers are doing nothing about it?

The question is about flu vaccinations and I strongly encourage the hon. Gentleman to join me in having a flu vaccination, as I believe he is one of the eligible individuals. In relation to Derbyshire, the local health services there are working together to identify the best pattern of provision for a sustainable health service for the future.

The question was about the prevention of excess deaths, so the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was entirely in order in his interpretation of the question. It was not about flu vaccinations, and nobody should mislead the House, however inadvertently.

Kettering general hospital would be better able to deal with winter pressures were it given permission to develop its urgent care hub. The hospital tells me that its application has been with NHS Improvement for nine months now. Will the Minister prod NHS Improvement to get a move on in approving this application?

My hon. Friend held an Adjournment debate recently which I was pleased to respond to. We discussed the status of Kettering general hospital and the foundation trust that runs it. He is correct that it is discussing with NHS Improvement the development of a business case for an urgent care hub, and this is being considered in the context of the wider sustainability and transformation plan. Mr Speaker, I accept your admonishment in respect of my answer to the previous question. Of course, one of the primary solutions to winter excess deaths is the flu vaccination programme.