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Extreme Heat Preparedness

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 18 July.

“For the first time ever, the UK Health Security Agency has issued a level 4 heat health alert for much of the country. Temperatures are forecast to reach the low 40s. It looks probable that they will break the current UK record of 38.7 degrees Celsius, recorded in Cambridge in 2019, and they currently stand at 37.5 degrees in Suffolk.

I have just come from chairing the latest in a series of COBRA briefings that have been held since last week, including over the weekend, to co-ordinate the extensive preparation and mitigation measures being taken across the Government to face the next 36 hours. I am grateful to colleagues in the devolved Administrations and in local resilience forums around the country and our local authority and agency partners, which are keeping public services running and responding to any local issues that may emerge.

Thanks to our strong forecasting capabilities, the Government were able to launch a comprehensive public communications campaign ahead of the heatwave. This involved advice from, among others, the UKHSA, the Met Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, our Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Thomas Waite.

While we hope people will take notice of the advice on how to keep safe in the high temperatures, the NHS has made sure that all its operational capacity and capability are available during the heatwave. The 999 and 111 services have also stood up all available capacity. There are now more than 2,400 call handlers for 999, which is an increase of about 500 since September last year. On the detail, I will defer to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health, who will make a Statement on the health system in this heatwave imminently.

While heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, we are adapting to temperatures not previously experienced in this country and to events such as this coming with increased frequency and severity. The Government have been in the lead on appreciating the impacts of climate change; indeed, it was a Conservative Government who enshrined net zero in law. Since the time of David Cameron, Conservative Prime Ministers have spoken passionately about the impact of climate change and the need to keep 1.5 degrees alive, notably at last year’s COP 26 UN climate change conference.

As I say, we have long taken the lead on this issue. Over the past three decades, the UK has driven down emissions faster than any other G7 country, and we have clear plans to go further. We are showing the way on climate change, helping over 90% of countries set net-zero targets during our COP 26 presidency—up from 30% two years ago. On cleaner energy, the UK is also forging ahead of most other countries. About 40% of our power now comes from cleaner and cheaper renewables. Our net-zero work is vital to create resilience. We must continue to drive forward the initiatives that help us curb the impacts of climate change and at the same time build systems that help us withstand extreme events as they arise.”

My Lords, every season brings new weather challenges. We have had homes without power because of strong winds, devastation from floods and, this week, the chaos from extreme temperatures. But the Statement, which the Minister must be grateful he does not have to read out, is so complacent: we are “showing the way”, “forging ahead” of other countries and have “taken the lead”. That kind of complacency does not give confidence that the Government recognise the scale of what is needed, particularly when the Prime Minister does not even attend COBRA meetings. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, the deputy chair of the Committee on Climate Change, said:

“We’ve been telling the government for over 10 years that we are nothing like well enough prepared … for the really hot weather we are seeing now”.

I have one question for the Minister. In the unread Answer, there is a reference to the importance of the local resilience forums and the work they do. What has been the increase, or otherwise, in funding and support from central government in the last five years? If he does not have that information, will he place it in the Library?

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. Can the Minister confirm that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office has been operating 30% under strength for a number of months and that, in addition, it was wound up last week? Who is minding the shop?

My Lords, so far as the management of the response to the heatwave is concerned, that is my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Overall responsibility for the longer-term net-zero objectives of this Government, which are greater than those of any Government before, is carried forward by Defra. The implication of the noble Lord’s question is that there might be some failure. I pay tribute to all those involved in planning for this heatwave. The forward warnings and information for the public have been very clear, and the emergency services have responded extraordinarily well. I express my thanks to them.

My Lords, at the risk of making myself unpopular, does my noble friend not think that there is something of an overreaction to two days of extreme temperatures? I remember the summer of 1976 because that is when I proposed to my wife, who I have been married to for 45 years. We had two months of very extreme temperatures and somehow, we did not have people going out painting the rails white, people not turning up for work and airlines not operating, so should we not get a sense of proportion here and recognise that the people being held up at airports are all trying to get to countries where it is even hotter?

One of my neighbours said that to me only yesterday; he was just off to a hotter place. Of course, I remember the bloom of youth, and the summer of 1976 was wonderful and memorable in many ways. Let us not forget that many people, if they behave sensibly and reasonably, can enjoy those warm summer days that they dreamt of in the cold winter nights of November and December—but many people are vulnerable and need care, support and protection. That is the responsibility of the Government so, although I accept what my noble friend says, we should all be mindful that there is danger in excessive and exceptional heat. The Government, with the emergency services and others, are seeking to respond to it.

My Lords, surely the issue is that the current heatwave is yet another example of climate change; I am sure the Minister will agree on that. But the Government seem to be acting Janus-like to net zero. One face is the leadership of COP 26. The other is, for example, the Prime Minister’s positive support for a new coal mine in Cumbria and extending oil and gas licences in the North Sea. The International Energy Agency says that no new fossil fuel developments can proceed if net zero by 2050 is to be achieved. Which face of Janus will it be for the Government?

My Lords, there are several strands tied up in that question. We have some exceptional hot days in July. We must respond to that and are doing the immediate response. Then there is a separate strand when the noble Baroness talks about the longer-term threat of climate change. The party opposite was among those beating the tam-tam to remove from office my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who has pushed through the strongest commitments and the most specific and active support for COP 26 by any Government in history. As for what the noble Baroness says about a coal mine, the Government remain absolutely committed to net zero. Does the noble Baroness not understand that we must balance the issues across the energy sector and the global economy caused by the illegal invasion of Ukraine? We must ensure that in the immediate future we have a diverse and resilient energy supply chain to withstand broader impact.

My Lords, can the Minister indicate the exact work done with the devolved Administrations and Whitehall on meeting net-zero targets? My noble friend Lady Smith referred to all the serious extreme weather events that have taken place over the last year. Can the Minister outline the exact work being done to complement what happened in Glasgow last November?

My Lords, I know that information on the specific number of meetings that have taken place between Ministers and the devolved Administrations has been given to the House on a number of occasions. I can absolutely assure the noble Baroness that in these circumstances we are and have been working closely with the devolved Administrations, and we will continue to do so.

My Lords, I have been banging on and boring on about climate change for 30 years—at first it was considered a rather eccentric obsession—but the Government’s reaction to this is extraordinary. This is not a nanny state. Does my noble friend think there is anybody who does not understand that if you are getting dehydrated you drink water and if you are hot in the sun you get into the shade? Everybody knows that. We do not need an industry pursuing it. I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Forsyth. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, I agree with the common-sense advice that my noble friend gives. The British people are a wise people, just as they are a generous people, and I think they are perfectly capable of taking common-sense measures. But there is no harm in those in positions to advise, whether in the health service or elsewhere, giving health advice. For example, heat can be specifically dangerous for those with particular cardiovascular conditions. There needs to be a mix but ultimately, we rely on the common sense and good sense of the British people.

My Lords, do the Government not consider that we should look at the other side of the coin? Over the last month we have seen a huge amount of energy wasted that we have not been able to secure or store. Should the Government not be doing much more to try to protect our storage and encourage investment and research in this very area? This energy is being completely wasted, to the detriment of humanity.

My Lords, the noble Lord takes me into a wider area of policy outside my responsibilities. In principle, obviously, I agree with the point that he makes. The conservation of good is something that every Government and person across the world should aspire to. I will certainly make sure that my colleagues in the appropriate department are made aware of his observations.

My Lords, many of us in your Lordships’ House are of a significant age. The message that has been given in the media and generally is one of serious danger to the elderly and excessive deaths. Could the Minister ensure that the message is reframed to put the emphasis on the simple things you can do, rather than frightening people into being unable to continue with their normal lives?

I strongly agree with that. I deplore “Project Fear” in any form when it comes up. The noble Baroness is right that we need simple measures that we do not necessarily need to be told about by the Government, such as walking in the shade and drinking plenty of water. These are the things that one can do to make things better for the individual. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and how they cope, and older people do have difficulties.

I am conscious that, standing here as the Minister for heat, I am a successor to Mr Denis Howell, who was Minister for Drought not long ago, so I confidently hope that there may be some water tomorrow falling from the skies.