As we brace ourselves for an exceptionally hot day with record-breaking temperatures, it seems right to reflect on the heat wave as a national emergency risk. It is a national risk and it is one that we take seriously. So, we hope everyone will heed the warnings and follow the advice.
What do we know about this risk? Well, this heat wave probably won’t reach national emergency levels – at least in the week ahead. That level (as it’s modelled in the National Risk Assessment) suggests daily temperatures above 28C (night above 15C) for at least 2 weeks, with five consecutive days peaking at over 32C.
That’s the planning model and it is based on last big European heat wave of 2003. So, it isn’t an abstraction. It’s based on a real and relatively recent event. And we know that if an event approaches that that level we will have serious health impacts. What happened in 2003?
Europe had its hottest summer, according to some estimates, for 500 years. It peaked in early August and some places, even relatively northerly parts, suffered extended periods with daytime temperatures over 40C. Amazingly, credible sources suggest that the overall death toll was above 70,000. That is 'excess deaths' (over the 'normal' expected level) which are thought to be directly attributed to this event.
France was really hit hard. Their official statistic is that 14,802 people (mostly elderly) died. To some extent the French experience is an anomaly. Basically, the nation was on holiday, the risk wasn’t understood and the health care system failed catastrophically.
As the French Red Cross put it, most of those people didn’t die because of the heat. They died because they were isolated and neglected in the heat.
In the UK we think about 2,000 people died as a direct result of the 2003 heat wave - and that is roughly what we would expect if it was repeated. That number alone means that it is taken very seriously. But you can add another factor; it only takes a few very simple, home-help measures to really reduce the risk. That’s why you are getting so much advice from the government and the health services at the moment and why everyone should follow it.
But what about the most vulnerable, who may not be able to care for themselves? They are at the most risk. The health services, local authorities and emergency services are already geared up for this. But communities and neighbours should be on the look-out. A simple intervention could make all the difference.
We’ll close with an observation and question. Part of the French soul-searching after the shock of 2003 involved a painful recognition that their society (in the words of the French Red Cross again) tended to see care for the vulnerable as a problem for the authorities – not for the community. Can we really say that isn’t the case in the UK?