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Cold Weather: Long-term Health Effects

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2022

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential long-term effects of cold weather over the winter on the health of (a) children and (b) pensioners. (901949)

Pensioners and children are particularly vulnerable to cold weather, which is why we are spending £37 billion on our energy support package. A typical household will save a third—£700—of what they would have paid this winter. The 8 million most-vulnerable households will get £1,200 in support this year to help with the cost of living. The record block grant agreed at the spending review will enable devolved Administrations to provide further services to support those in need.

It is a fact that growing up and living in poor and cold housing leads directly to bad health outcomes. The director of University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, Sir Michael Marmot, stated that the Government must act now, because

“we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis with thousands losing their lives and millions of children’s development blighted”.

That was before the Chancellor’s U-turn on the energy price guarantee, which will mean that average household bills are £4,000-plus a year, or more if they are off-gas grid. Does the Minister think that is acceptable, or will he urge his colleagues to do much more?

I actually agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s point. That is why, as well as the huge direct support to households, we are investing £12 billion in Help to Heat schemes to help make people’s homes warmer and cheaper to heat, another £1.1 billion in the home upgrade grant, and £500 million in the sustainable warmth competition. We take this issue very seriously, and colleagues at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are taking further actions to clamp down on squalid housing.

Access to GP appointments is particularly important to help to deal with winter pressures, so can the Minister update the House on progress in implementing the improvements promised in October last year to help GPs to expand to meet demand over the winter?

My right hon. Friend is so right, and she has been a powerful champion on this issue. We have invested £1.5 billion to get an extra 50 million GP appointments per year. The number of appointments in September was up 7% compared with the same month in 2019. We now have an extra 2,300 doctors working in primary care compared with 2019, and an extra 19,300 primary care professionals, on the way to the goal of 26,000 extra primary care professionals. This is hugely important, we are investing in it, and my right hon. Friend is right to campaign on it.

We know that, if poorer communities cannot afford to heat their homes, health inequalities will worsen significantly over the winter months and beyond. Despite the seriousness of this issue, the previous Health Secretary—that is the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), in case Members are struggling to keep track—planned to ditch the Government’s long-promised health disparities White Paper. Does the current Minister intend to do the same? If he does, how will he seriously address the dreadful health inequalities that have widened after 12 Tory years?

The hon. Gentleman implies that I disagree with him about this. In fact, the Government are working hard to clamp down on squalid housing. That is exactly what we were doing in my previous Department, DLUHC, and I have just mentioned some of the things that we are doing: the £37 billion we are spending to help people to meet the cost of living, the £15 billion of that that is targeted on the very poorest households, and the £12 billion that we are investing in making people’s houses easier to heat. We will continue to tackle health disparities across the board.

The NHS Confederation wrote to the former Chancellor raising its concerns about rising energy costs and the knock-on effects on health and on NHS services. We all know that this winter we will see people making the choice between heating and eating. Both routes will inevitably lead to more illness and worse health outcomes, so what action are Ministers taking, with their colleagues in Cabinet, to avoid this public health catastrophe?

We are taking the action that I have just been describing in terms of direct support for households. Of course, because health is devolved, we are also helping the devolved Administrations. The Scottish Government, for example, receive £126 per person for every £100 per person of equivalent UK Government spending in England and Wales. That enables the Scottish Government to provide extra help for those in need. It is another example, on top of furlough and the energy support scheme, of how this country is strongest when we all work together constructively.