THE BLOG

The Big Issue - Why People OFF the Streets Are Freezing to Death

15/01/2016 17:50 GMT | Updated 15/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Seven seconds. It's the time it's taken you to read this far - and it's also the basis for a shocking statistic. A horrifying truth.

You see, in that short time - seven seconds - records suggest that one more elderly or vulnerable person in the UK will have succumbed to the winter chill. Or to put it bluntly, died - probably alone - from the cold.

Count it. One pink elephant; two, three, four, five, six, seven pink elephants.

In fact, it doesn't matter what colour the elephants are - the important part is that there's a great big, whopping elephant in the room; next door to us; over the road; down the street; round the corner - and currently, it's being ignored.

So here are some numbers for you. 44,000. That's the number of elderly and vulnerable people who died from the cold last winter. That's a 150% increase on the previous year and the highest number since the turn of the millennium. Like I said, pretty big elephant, right?

The worst bit? Most of these deaths could have been prevented. It's very easy to lose sight of big numbers, but we're talking about people's grandparents, friends and neighbours here.

Ever since I became Channel 5 weather presenter in 2010, I've been aware of this growing problem. In that year, we had one of the coldest winters on record - 'Snowmageddon', the tabloids coined it.

But this movie-like scenario had no happy Hollywood ending. Thousands of 'excess' deaths were caused by the extreme conditions five years ago, and the death toll has been rising ever since.

So, you're probably thinking, how can this be possible in a first world, affluent country? Surely we're all used to the British weather by now?

Well the problem is, despite our national obsession with the weather, we're pretty terrible at dealing with it.

Our neighbours in Scandinavia have much colder winters than we do and yet Britain still experiences much higher death rates. Why is this? Well, one reason is that in general, our homes aren't insulated like theirs, and the same amount of money hasn't been invested on making our homes more energy efficient.

But research also shows that in the UK there's a general lack of awareness regarding the effect that the cold weather can have on a vulnerable person's health - and how easily it can be prevented.

Three years ago I began working with a charity called Leonard Cheshire Disability. They had a centre close to where I lived, in Wandsworth, so quite often I would pop in to help cheer up the residents.

On one such visit, manager William Gallagher told me about their 'Winter Warmer' campaign.

Aware of the horrendous facts and witnesses to the rising death toll in their local area, they were trying to launch an initiative to help educate local people in how to stay warm and stay safe in winter.

At the time they had no funding, very limited budget and relied on volunteers to help out. Knowing my input could make a difference, I was delighted to become the 'face' of the campaign.

To increase awareness we went to the shopping centre down the road with a photographer from the local newspaper, bought loads of blankets, took lots of photos and asked the people of Wandsworth to donate any blankets or warm clothes they could afford to give away. William and his staff worked tirelessly and altruistically to hand out Winter Warmer packs (containing food, blankets and information) and worked alongside social services to provide after-care for those homes they visited that were below standard.

The results were incredible. That winter, Leonard Cheshire Disability saw a dramatic decrease in deaths in the area. Vulnerable people became aware of the help they could get locally, residents of Wandsworth donated and more people got involved.

But we didn't want to stop at Wandsworth. Once we knew it was working, our mission was to take this campaign nationwide.

Put simply, the Winter Warmer Campaign isn't just a charity - it's a movement. It's about paying it forward. Looking out for people. Giving something back.

With the hard work and effort by all involved, the campaign has seen huge growth already - lottery funding, collaborations with Age UK and the local emergency services, and this Christmas just gone, William and I worked on reaching out to people nationwide by appearing on Channel 5 news to talk about the campaign.

It's proven that cold weather causes a massive increase in heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia, depression, worsening arthritis and increased accidents at home. With utility bills soaring each year, those most at risk can't always afford to turn the heating up or don't have proper winter clothing and blankets to help keep them warm. So if you want to help this winter, here are some simple, quick steps which could just save a life.

With most call outs to Leonard Cheshire happening when conditions are between 2-8 degrees don't wait until it freezes over to take action. No matter how mild it may seem, dare to knock on an elderly neighbour's door, and double check they have the heating on. The magic numbers are 21 and 18 - the ideal temperatures for your living room and bedroom.

If you don't have an elderly neighbour, pop down to your Gran's house, or your friend's Gran's house, and make sure she has a fleecy blanket to put over her knee when she's sat still.

While you're in town, drop off an old pair of gloves or a scarf to your local disability centre.

Check that vulnerable family members or colleagues have tinned food in the cupboards for those days that it might be too cold or too icy to go down to the shops.

They might seem like little things, but every action helps prevent the next unnecessary death.

After all, the seven minutes it took you to read this far? That's 60 more.

We can't waste another second.

If you have blankets, warm clothing or food you would like to donate to the Winter Warmer campaign, please call William J Gallagher at Randall Close on 0207 223 0422.