NHS bosses have made an “unprecedented” appeal to the Government to take action on rising energy prices as the UK faces a “public health emergency”.
The NHS Confederation sent a letter to ministers on Friday, warning that surging costs mean people will have to choose between skipping meals to heat their homes or living in cold and damp conditions this winter.
Health leaders said they are concerned that widespread fuel poverty will increase the high number of annual deaths associated with cold homes – estimated at 10,000 – and add pressure to an already overwhelmed health service.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor said: “The country is facing a humanitarian crisis.
“Many people could face the awful choice between skipping meals to heat their homes and having to live in in cold, damp and very unpleasant conditions.
“This in turn could lead to outbreaks of illness and sickness around the country and widen health inequalities, worsen children’s life chances, and leave an indelible scar on local communities.”
Mr Taylor said these outbreaks of illness will strike “just as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record”.
“NHS leaders have made this unprecedented intervention as they know that fuel poverty will inevitably lead to significant extra demand on what are already very fragile services,” he added.
“Health leaders are clear that, unless urgent action is taken by the Government, this will cause a public health emergency.”
It comes as energy regulator Ofgem is set to raise the cap on energy prices from October, leading household bills to soar.
The Government has faced calls to freeze bills or provide more support to households, but ministers have said no action will be taken until a new prime minister is in place on September 5.
The NHS Confederation’s letter, addressed to Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi and Health Secretary Steve Barclay, warned that health bosses in the UK are “already seeing huge suffering in our local communities because of the cost-of-living crisis”.
It said local leaders are already taking measures to help struggling staff, including setting up food banks, providing salary advances and supplying free school uniform for their children.
The letter also said they believe the Government’s proposed policy of £400 paid in monthly instalments will not be sufficient and called on ministers to safeguard households who cannot absorb energy prices rising by up to 82%.
On why the NHS Confederation is getting involved over energy bills, Mr Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is absolutely clear that if more people are suffering from fuel poverty, more people are unable to heat their homes – that will drive additional demand.
“It’s our duty to flag the fact that it looked as though we could be heading for additional demand on a system which is already, even in the middle of August, finding it very difficult to meet demand, and facing an extremely difficult winter.”
Challenged on whether the NHS letter to ministers is “overtly political”, Mr Taylor said: “It’s not our job to tell the Government what to do.
“It’s our responsibility to be clear about what is likely to be happening in terms of health needs and the capacity of the NHS to cope.”
He added that the NHS Confederation is speaking on behalf of hundreds of health leaders across the UK.
“We’re making this call because leaders have asked us to make this because they can see the growing problems in their community and amongst lower paid staff, and they are concerned about the fact that they’ll be facing additional demands, more people who felt sick during winter, and it’s our responsibility to speak about that,” he said.
“It is a major public health issue.”
Local leaders also spoke out about the situation on Friday.
Beatrice Fraenkel, chairwoman of Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Whilst we as employers are doing all we can to mitigate against the situation, this crisis is proving a real challenge for our staff, personally and professionally.”
Jeremy Vanes, chairman of Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “The population my organisation provides mental health services for is amongst the least wealthy in the UK, with over 45% of people living within the lowest income bands.
“We anticipate some will even struggle to keep their homes in the year ahead, such is the affordability crisis.
“Unquestionably this situation will have wide health effects, and further support should be well targeted.”
A Government spokesman said: “We know that rising prices are affecting how far people’s incomes go, which is why we have taken action to help households with £37 billion worth of support, which includes targeted support to help people through the difficult winter ahead.
“Eight million of the most vulnerable households will see £1,200 extra support, provided in instalments across the year, and everyone will receive £400 over the winter to help with energy bills.
“That’s on top of action earlier this year, including a record fuel duty cut and a National Insurance cut worth up to £330 a year for the typical employee.
“We are also working closely with the NHS at pace to ensure we are ready for the pressures ahead by increasing capacity, boosting NHS 111 and 999 support, tackling delayed discharge and using new innovations such as virtual wards.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “NHS leaders are absolutely right to raise concerns about the impact on health. The Vaccines Minister has admitted that elderly people unable to heat their homes this winter will be at greater risk of flu and other illnesses.”