Skip to main content

Heatwave Response

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 21 July 2022


The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 20 July.

“I would like to make a Statement on this week’s heatwave. Coningsby in Lincolnshire broke records yesterday when it registered a provisional reading of 40.3 degrees centigrade. According to the Met Office, no fewer than 34 locations around the United Kingdom exceeded the country’s previous highest temperature of 37.8 degrees centigrade, which was set in 2019.

We have seen a collective national endeavour to prepare for and manage the effects of the heat, from town hall to Whitehall and across various industries, to keep people safe and infrastructure functioning. From water companies and rail engineers to public servants across the land, everyone has pulled together, with members of the public responding in a responsible way that took the pressure off vital public services.

Our national resolve has been exemplified by our fire and rescue services, for many of which yesterday was the busiest day since World War II. They were undoubtedly stretched, but coped magnificently. The systems in place to make sure that the fire services can operate nationally as well as locally worked well. In tinderbox conditions, they have dealt with dozens of wildfires around the country over the past 24 hours. Fifteen fire and rescue services declared major incidents and handled emergency calls the length and breadth of the country.

Sadly, at least 41 properties have been destroyed in London, 14 in Norfolk, five in Lincolnshire and smaller numbers elsewhere. On behalf of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and, I am sure, the whole House, I would like to pass on our sincere condolences to those who have lost their homes or business premises. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is working closely with local authorities to provide support to them.

Throughout recent days, the Prime Minister has monitored our work and has been specifically briefed on a number of occasions; we briefed him again this morning. The Prime Minister was briefed during the wildfires by Mark Hardingham—the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council—and the civil contingencies secretariat. He has passed on his thanks to all the brave firefighters who have sought to control the flames in such debilitating conditions. I would also like to pay my tribute to the fire control staff, officers and support teams for their essential work and to the other agencies that have made such tremendous efforts in recent days: the NHS, our emergency call handlers, the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, among many others.

Honourable Members will be relieved to know that some pressure on these services will now ease as the fiercest heat has subsided. Many incidents are now being scaled back. Thunderstorms are likely this afternoon, but for much of the country, more clement, dry conditions are the pattern for the coming days. The Met Office, however, stresses that the summer is likely to bring further hot weather and wildfire risk remains elevated. That is why we are treating this heatwave as an exacting test of our national resilience and contingency planning. As always, there is no room for complacency.

We have seen over the past few days what we can achieve when we prepare properly and then work closely together. Owing to the technical expertise of the weather forecasters who predicted with admirable precision the peak of the heatwave and how high the temperatures would be, the Government were able to launch an advance campaign of comprehensive public advice. Our early data shows how, well before the heatwave arrived, people were taking on board that advice from the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS, the Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officer, emergency services and key agencies on the ground.

Because of our established local networks and colleagues in the devolved Administrations, we had people spread across the UK ready to step in when it mattered. I am particularly grateful for the co-operation and support that we received from the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. We all need to manage these events together.

I would like to give some examples of how people taking the right action helped to mitigate the effects of the extreme weather, starting with the heeding of advice. Fully five times as many people accessed NHS England internet pages on how to manage the symptoms of heat exhaustion in the critical week beginning 11 July. We had feared that our vital 999 call services would come under untold pressure, yet as the mercury climbed inexorably on 18 July, fewer 999 calls but more 111 calls were made than the week before. That suggests that the public had heeded the advice to avoid 999 except in emergencies.

With travel, once again people were playing for the team. The public stayed at home to avoid the heat, not venturing far. The data bears that out: on Monday, footfall at major London stations was at approximately 35% of normal post-pandemic levels. Network Rail reports that passenger train numbers yesterday were approximately 40% down on the previous week. We did not forget those who cannot easily leave their homes; we asked people to look out for the elderly and for vulnerable family members and neighbours.

Tragically, 13 people are believed to have lost their lives after getting into difficulty in rivers, reservoirs and lakes while swimming in recent days; seven of them, sadly, were teenage boys. I would like to pass on our sincere condolences and those of the whole House to the families of the victims for their terrible loss.

Of course, we have still to work through the longer-term consequences of the heatwave. The true picture will not come until all incidents are analysed, all emergency teams are debriefed and all incident logs and data reconciled. A great deal of data has yet to come in from colleagues in the devolved Administrations and from local authorities and agencies around the country. We recognise that we are likely to experience more of these incidents, and that we should not underestimate their speed, scope and severity. Britain may be unaccustomed to such high temperatures, but the UK, along with our European neighbours, must learn to live with extreme events such as these.

The Government have been at the forefront of international efforts to reach net zero, but the impacts of climate change are with us now. That is why we have a national adaptation programme under the leadership of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As we have seen in recent days, we will continue to face acute events driven by climate change. It is the responsibility of Cabinet Office Ministers to co-ordinate work across government when those events take place.

The Government will continue to build our collective resilience. To that end, the national resilience strategy, about which I was asked on Monday, will be launched at the earliest possible opportunity by the incoming Administration. In the meantime, I will continue to co-ordinate the work of teams across government in building resilience to make sure that the country is ready to meet the challenges of the autumn, the winter and beyond. In that spirit, I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, it would be helpful for the House to hear me read out again the points I made yesterday. I say to the Minister: yesterday’s scenes from Wellington, and other places, of homes and lives devasted are shocking and heartbreaking. As a former fire and safety Minister, I pay tribute—and I am sure the whole House will join me—to all our emergency services for their extraordinary efforts, especially the London Fire Brigade, which faced its most challenging day since the Blitz.

I hope that even those in this House who derided the concerns about extreme weather when we had the Statement on Thursday, with fond memories of the summer of 1976, will now recognise that the current events are very different. This week’s events in the UK and across Europe, when added to the previous extremes we have seen causing flooding and weeks of power supply problems, are a stark reminder that the climate emergency is real and pressing.

I am grateful to the Minister for responding in writing to my question about funding support for local resilience forums and confirming that this could be reviewed. However, given the damage and destruction we have seen—lives being devastated and the potential for it to happen again—will the Government commission a lessons-learned review on how local emergency services, LRFs and the Cabinet, which has been distracted by internal politics, can be better prepared? Can he make sure that the right funding is in place to ensure that, when these events occur, we are properly prepared at every level to respond to them?

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. I entirely endorse what she said about the horrific nature of some of the pictures and films we saw, behind each of which is a person whose life has been affected; our hearts go out to all those people. I also wholly agree with what she said about the role of fire services in this particular instance, as well as all the other emergency and response services, which have worked so hard during those events.

I take the point the noble Baroness made about needing to learn lessons, and hopefully this will be one of the things that feeds into the new resilience strategy under preparation at the moment. I can certainly assure her that, in both the national security risk assessment and our work on resilience, the lessons of the last few days will be taken into account. I am grateful for what she said about those who have worked so hard.

My Lords, the response to this extraordinary event has been extremely good. I hope the Minister will agree with me that the local responses were as important as the national effort. This reinforces the argument that we need to pay more attention to ensuring that our local authorities, their public health officers and others play a larger role and have the resources necessary to help their communities, because not everything can be done from London or Whitehall.

I hope that the events of the last two or three days have finally killed off the views of climate change deniers and those in the Minister’s own party who say that climate change adaptation is better than attempts to stop the transition in its tracks. While a more active Government would mean a larger state, that is less disastrous, they would argue, than climate change. I hope that he would also agree that the active interventions needed to stop climate change will involve a good deal of long-term public investment and that this may need to take priority over tax cuts. Those who insist that tax cuts are what come first under any circumstance—which seems to be the major theme of the current Conservative leadership contest—should take account of what we need to do if we are to adapt to climate change. This includes water storage—which the east of England in particular needs to invest in more—and ways of changing the built environment, particularly by greening our cities and providing houses and flats built not just for keeping warm but for keeping cool in the summer by, for example, reducing the amount of glass. In the longer term, a whole range of measures will be needed to ensure that we cope with the international transition. Can the Minister tell us a little more about the national resilience strategy: how do the Government plan to present that, and how will it engage a national conversation on the very substantial transition we need to make over the next five to 10 years?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions, and he knows that I share his deep and profound respect and affection for local government and the astonishing public service given by local government officers and councillors up and down this country. The local resilience forums referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, yesterday have performed admirably—I endorse what was said—during this response and are mitigating almost all the problems before escalation. DLUHC and partners held four resilience co-ordination group meetings, some of which were attended by the Secretary of State, and strategic co-ordination groups have overseen the local response. We have also welcomed co-operation with the devolved Administrations.

On the noble Lord’s broader points, I speak for Her Majesty’s Government, not for who one might want to lead a future Government. This Government, under the leadership of my right honourable friend Mr Johnson, have been, as I said earlier in the week, absolutely at the forefront of progress towards net zero. Our objective is that, by 2030, 95% of British electricity will be low-carbon. We are looking for 40,000 more jobs in the clean industries—a figure that we think will reach almost half a million by 2030. COP 26 shows the deep commitment of this Government to that battle. The resilience strategy is nearing completion and will be published after the Recess. I cannot advise your Lordships on the actual timing and date of its publication, but work is well advanced.

My Lords, we have all seen the dramatic pictures of this week’s extreme heatwave, and I pay tribute to all those involved in trying to deal with it, but perhaps I might bring to the House’s attention other aspects that have not been seen. For example, I do not know whether your Lordships know this but a major London hospital this week lost all its computing power, and all the back-up servers went down. By any standards, that is a failure of real importance. It is not just the dramatic television pictures that we need to worry about. As a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, I can say that we are examining the issues of resilience in great detail, and I dare say that the House will have other opportunities to debate it, but will the Minister take back from this exchange the fact that some really important things can go wrong that you do not see?

As ever, the noble Viscount speaks wise words. I shall take back what he said. The reality is that, despite the pressures that there were in various places, the NHS emergency call handlers dealt with record numbers of calls to 999. All those public servants involved have done an outstanding job. One thing that helped was that the advance warning process worked very well, and people were able to prepare. Indeed, the weather forecasters take a bit of a pasting in this country—it is a favourite pub conversation—but I think that they did pretty well on this occasion, enabling everyone to be put on the right footing. However, I agree with the noble Viscount that there are issues that do not necessarily always come to the forefront, and all of them must be swept in and considered as we prepare for future similar events. I have no doubt about that.

My Lords, according to climate change risk assessment evidence produced by the Climate Change Committee every five years, up to 90% of hospital wards in this country are at risk of overheating, because they are not designed for the kind of weather that we are going to get in future. Could the Minister tell us how many of the 40 new hospitals that the Government have committed to build by 2030 will be built in a way that is resilient to extreme heat?

My Lords, I can hear some chuckling about the 40 new hospitals, but I have no doubt that those facilities will be built and must be built. Setting the chuckling aside, the serious question put by the noble Lord is one that I shall take away and seek advice on. Obviously, it is not my department that is supervising that, but the noble Lord makes an important point, and I shall report back to him on it.

We must be responsive to the challenge of climate change. However, we must not forget that there are other challenges at the other end of the spectrum. We also need to continue to protect elderly people against the effects of cold in winter. It is very easy to obsess about extreme heat now, and rightly so, but other dangers also lurk in the natural world that we inhabit.

My Lords, we read that a comparatively small number of people had their houses either completely destroyed or very seriously damaged. Should not special provisions be made for such people in the circumstances that my noble friend has described?

My Lords, the reports were certainly shocking. At the moment, the data is provisional, but we expect there to be up to 100 damaged properties, with at least 41 damaged and destroyed in London alone. In the wildfire in Wennington, Essex, 88 properties were evacuated and 15 damaged and destroyed. Data is provisional at the moment, and we will have to watch that as it comes in.

As for what is done in individual cases, every one of those cases will vary, and I do not think that it is for me at the Dispatch Box to say what might or might not happen in the individual circumstances of a particular family whose house has been destroyed or damaged. I hope that all the authorities concerned will approach those families with the utmost sensitivity and understanding.

My Lords, it is right that we think about the effect on human beings, but these high temperatures have a huge effect on our agricultural sector, particularly on livestock. Extreme heat reduces milk yields from cattle, for example, and reduces fertility and increases the number of miscarriages. What work is being done by government scientists to prepare our agriculture industry if this continues, and what advice is being given in the short term to help our first-class British agriculture sector adapt and continue to provide the food as it does so well?

The right reverend Prelate makes an important point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, earlier. I regret that I am not in possession of advice on that point at the moment, but I shall certainly pass on his comments to my colleagues in Defra, and will do so with some urgency, because he makes an extremely important point. The countryside suffers as well as the urban areas, and we need to be prudent and thoughtful custodians wherever we live.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. The Minister has several times referred to the importance of local resilience forums. He has been asked in the past what their current level of funding is, and whether it has been maintained. Could he also tell us whether that funding is going to be properly ring-fenced? The other day I asked him about the Civil Contingencies Secretariat. Can he tell us whether that still exists, or whether it is continuing but on a basis of a 30% vacancy factor?

My Lords, I very much regret that, although I wrote to the noble Baroness opposite about the resilience forums and funding, which is embedded and due to continue, I did not reply on the question that the noble Lord has asked and has asked again. That is a deep fault within me; I apologise to him and to the House, and I shall come back with an answer on the point that he asked about. I hope that he will pardon me for a day or two, until I get that information to him.

My Lords, I support entirely what the right reverend Prelate said with regard to farming and livestock, given the extreme conditions this week. The last time we had a drought and appointed a Drought Minister, it was followed by significant floods. Will my noble friend support the idea of considering a national grid for water, like the regional grid set up by Yorkshire Water in the whole Yorkshire region, which is able to feed water through pumps and pipes to those areas where there is water stress or shortage? That would enable areas of the UK which suffer water stress, such as East Anglia and the south-east of England, to benefit in this way in future years, if this is going to be a regular occurrence.

My Lords, again, I am tempted to speak outside my brief. Perhaps I could express a personal response: the water that

“droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven”

is a precious resource given to us and to people in every nation, and we have the duty to do the best that we conceivably can to preserve that precious resource in our own nation, as well as an enormous responsibility to bring the gift of clean water to every person and nation of the world.

Could the lessons learned, or the resilience strategy, study the weather this week in detail and the local impacts and assess the likely frequency of future heatwaves? Has the Gulf Stream changed; is hot weather more likely to be pushed up from Europe than before? We need to invest in the right things and not the wrong things and I think a proper assessment of the weather, rather than ex cathedra statements about climate change, are really needed if we are to do the right thing.

My Lords, my noble friend has just made a point, as did so many noble Lords who have contributed, that should not be characterised as a sceptical point, or whatever, as so often those kinds of responses are. Our response should certainly be scientific and based on information and I am not going to talk at this Dispatch Box, as a member of this Government, about what might be the meteorological reasons for this particular invasion of Sahara air. Obviously, the jet stream this year is deflected in an unusual way, but I agree that we should study these things carefully and I hope that my colleagues and the Government’s scientific and meteorological advisers will continue to do so.

My Lords, the Minister said, quite rightly, that this crisis was well predicted in advance. In the event of any major crises in the future that are either predicted or predictable, what arrangements could there be for this House to return to hybrid operation, so that people who are not able to make it to London could fully participate? There has been some concern over the last couple of days that some people were unable to make it here.

My Lords, again, I think that is a matter not for the Executive but for the parliamentary authorities. I am sure they will have heard the noble Lord, who is a most assiduous attender—nobody will have thought of him when people who do not attend very much were spoken about earlier. I think people have heard what he said. Obviously, these things have to be held in balance. Overall, as a parliamentarian and someone who loves your Lordships’ House, I prefer to be able to look somebody in the eye, hear what they say and accept the challenge. I think that is the proper role of Parliament, but I am sure the authorities will consider what the noble Lord has said.

My Lords, first, there was a comment earlier that some noble Lords derided concerns about extreme weather. I actually heard those comments and saw them as balanced and proportionate. Will the Minister comment on another danger, which is scaremongering and sensationalism that can create a climate of fear? I watched the news with pictures that were described as, “We are witnessing Armageddon.” Many elderly people, children and so on must have been very frightened when they saw that, so is that a different kind of danger?

Secondly, on infrastructure, it was certainly shown up to be a bit creaky. On Sunday, before the heatwave, the trains I was trying to get were not running because of the weather, and neither were they running yesterday, after the heatwave. Could there be an opportunity for the Government to use their levelling-up initiative to improve infrastructure so that it can cope with weather challenges?

My Lords, there were number of points there, and I could quite easily be tempted to go rather further than I should. I said when we were discussing this earlier in the week that I do not really care for project fear in any form. My mother used to tell me the tale of the boy who cried wolf. There is a wolf, actually—there is climate change—but I think it is very important that this be tempered. People can be easily frightened and should not be frightened, because the response that needs to be made is a collective, international response and individuals should not be subjected to unreasonable stress by exaggerated and alarmist reports; there is a balance there.

As for trains on Sunday, it would be a fine thing to be able to get to Stansted Airport on a Sunday, would it not? UK rails are stressed to withstand temperatures of 27 degrees, which is the mean summer rail temperature in this country. Obviously, other countries, where the kind of weather we had earlier this week is normal, stress their rails to higher degrees, but obviously if you stress your rails to too high a temperature, you have problems at the lower level and we are told that there is the wrong kind of snow on the line. Network Rail needs to consider, and I am sure is considering, these matters. Three-quarters of UK track is modern and set into concrete sleepers, which helps prevent rails buckling in the hot temperatures, but I am sure the good railway people will have heard what the noble Baroness said.

My Lords, I declare an interest as my husband represents a part of east London where there were two devastating fires. I have seen film footage by the fire brigade of the two communities and it is complete devastation. I hope the Government can manage to provide some extra funding, because it looks like a complete war zone. People would have lost their lives had the local community not managed to help evacuate them just in time. It was literally just in time and it is complete devastation—they have lost everything. If the Government could see their way to providing some extra funds to the local authorities, I think it would be appropriate.

My Lords, I greatly welcome what the noble Baroness has said, and I tried to make the same point earlier: 45 members of the public at Wennington had to self-evacuate; 10 members of the public were evacuated to a rest centre; and 10 firefighters were affected by heat exhaustion, two of whom went to hospital. It was a horrific and shocking event for those involved. I hear what the noble Baroness said but I can only repeat what I said earlier: that I hope all the authorities involved—some of those will be private as well as public—will address with sensitivity the cases she referred to.

My Lords, the Minister referred to difficulties getting to Stansted Airport on Sunday. That is, of course, contributing to the problem, whether you travel by rail or road. He may be aware of the report this morning from UCL and LSE academics and Carbon Tracker showing that the oil and gas industry has delivered profits of £2.3 billion a day over the last 50 years to multinational companies and petrostates: that is a total of $52 trillion. Should that industry not be paying a lot more in tax instead of, in the UK, just since the Paris agreement was signed, the Government subsidising it to the tune of £13.6 billion?

Drawing on the point made by the noble Baroness, will not the people of Wennington and the other parts of east London and the other parts of the country so affected by these events, by wildfires that are entirely outside the British general experience, be thinking that those oil and gas companies should be paying into our long-awaited national resilience strategy and making a contribution for the conditions of the Anthropocene that they played a huge part in creating?

My Lords, the noble Baroness comes from an extremely radical anti-capital stance, which she has exemplified. I will not be an advocate for any particular company, but I think many of the companies in the industry concerned are bending many tens of millions of pounds towards investment in renewable and positive energy developments. It was incautious of me to mention Stansted Airport—it was a remark that was made to me this morning when I was coming to the office—but I sincerely hope that the Just Stop Oil protesters who blocked the M25 arrived either on foot or by bicycle.