England is “not ready” to respond to extreme heatwaves this summer and ministers must implement a national strategy, researchers have said.
In addition to excess deaths, they are warning of economic shocks and a “breakdown in public services” should the country experience more very high temperatures either this year or in the future.
Those involved in the response to such events, such as local authorities, first responders and utility companies are concerned that resources are at breaking point, the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment – part of London’s LSE – said.
Last July, the UK recorded a temperature above 40C for the first time ever, reaching 40.3C in the Lincolnshire village of Coningsby.
The Grantham report, which makes several recommendations, coincides with the launch of a new high temperature warning system by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
It’s being introduced in collaboration with the Met Office, which is warning that future heatwaves will be “more intense and last longer”.
The Heat-Health Alerting (HHA) service comprises yellow, amber and red responses which will focus on the “health impacts” that very high temperatures can have on the population, especially those that are vulnerable.
The top level – red – indicates “significant risk to life for even the healthy population”.
The number of excess deaths in people aged 65 and over during five “heat periods” in England last summer was 2,803, the UKHSA has said – the highest since 2004.
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Those participating in the Grantham Institute’s research, in association with the British Red Cross, said England is “not prepared to manage future extreme heat events, particularly if these were to occur more frequently at the same magnitude and duration”.
It is calling for a national strategy on extreme heat; better understanding of the effect of hot temperatures on vulnerable groups; improved communication and engagement; and for potential cuts to public bodies’ budgets to be stopped.
Candice Howarth, head of local climate action at the Grantham Institute, said the UK “does not have a history of climate adaptation to cope with extreme heat but this now must be at the top of the agenda for government, organisations, cities and the public”.
She added that ministers need to “consider impacts and responses beyond health” if England is to “avoid excess deaths, shocks to the economy and breakdown in public services in this and future summers”.
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Dr Agostinho Sousa, head of extreme events and health protection at the UKHSA, said: “Last year saw record high temperatures across England and evidence shows that heatwaves are likely to occur more often, be more intense and last longer in the years and decades ahead.
“It is important we are able to quantify the likely impacts of these heatwaves before they arrive to prevent illness and reduce the number of deaths.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government and emergency services are well prepared for any future heatwaves.
“Since last summer’s hot weather, we have worked across government to identify and implement lessons.
“This included the publication of the UK Health Security Agency’s Adverse Weather and Health Plan, which contains guidance on extreme heat and outlines how everyone can work together to respond to heatwaves.”
A third National Adaption Plan is expected from the government this year.