As temperatures nudge the mid-thirties, newspaper headlines warning ‘heatwave kills hundreds’ seem plausible.
But while the warm weather may well have triggered reports of a spike in heat-related deaths, experts say it’s too early to tell if that is actually the case.
Provisional Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures do show 995 more deaths than the five year average registered in England and Wales during the seven weeks from July 2 to July 20.
And it’s not in dispute that this has been one of the warmest and driest British summers in years – but as yet, it’s impossible to tell how many of those deaths were as a direct result of skyrocketing temperatures.
The ONS points out that provisional weekly death figures are based on the dates the deaths were registered, not the date each person died.
Nick Stripe, joint deputy director of health analysis and life events at the ONS, said: “This means the figure of 995 will include people who died before the hot weather, while potentially leaving out others who did die during the recent heatwave.
“Although the provisional data currently available appears to show a high number, it’s not really clear how meaningful this is.”
Despite an ageing and growing population, fewer deaths were registered during this seven-week period than during the same weeks of the last two years – at 65,439 in 2018 compared to 65,846 in 2017 and 65,728 in 2016.
And although this was 995 more registrations than the rolling five-year average for this period, there were more than twice as many registrations above the rolling average in 2017 (2,332), and more than three times as many in both 2016 (3,099) and 2015 (3,516).
However, Stripe warns that a summer spike in heat-related deaths can’t be ruled out just yet. Later in the year the ONS will be able to produce accurate figures by exact day of death, which can be related to temperature if necessary.
He added: “It’s important to avoid complacency – hot weather can be challenging particularly to older people, young children and those with long-term conditions including heart and lung diseases.”
More than 2,000 people died in just 10 days in 2003 when a heatwave pushed temperatures to as much as 38.5C and the Met Office warns that hot spells of a similar intensity will occur every other year by the 2040s.
Without the government developing a strategy to protect vulnerable people, such as the elderly, numbers dying from the heat could rise to 7,000 a year by 2050, a report from the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee said last month.
Ministers need to “stop playing pass the parcel” with local councils and the NHS and take action to ensure homes, hospitals, care homes, offices, cities, water supplies and transport networks can cope with rising temperatures, MPs said.
The report was published as the UK swelters in a prolonged heatwave hitting northern Europe, with scientists warning that climate change is making such heat extremes more likely.
Heatwaves cause premature deaths from cardiac, kidney and respiratory disease, put extra pressure on health and social services and hit wellbeing and productivity.