New ONS data reveals how cold homes and food insecurity is impacting people’s physical and emotional health
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The cost of living crisis, long NHS waiting lists, and high energy prices leaving people unable to afford to keep warm and cook hot meals, are combining to harm the nation’s health and wellbeing, according to Government data.
More than half of households surveyed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the winter crisis had negatively affected their health and wellbeing, with damning implications for the immediate and long-term impact of the cost of living crisis across the country.
Of particular concern is energy insecurity, with a third (34%) of adults reporting that having to cut back on heating their home had impacted their physical or emotional wellbeing in the past month.
While it has been a generally mild winter, temperatures dropped to below zero in early December, and again in mid-January. Nearly a quarter (24%) of surveyed households said they were occasionally, hardly ever, or never, able to keep comfortably warm.
Meanwhile, just over one in 10 (13%) said that cutting back on energy by not cooking hot meals had a negative effect on their health and wellbeing.
“It’s hugely concerning that more families are being plunged into poverty, struggling to heat their homes and afford enough food for their growing children”, Joe Lane, head of policy and research at Action for Children told Byline Times.
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High energy prices are one part of the grim winter picture, with households also struggling with food insecurity. Food inflation in December hit 16.8%, with even basics becoming out of reach for the poorest families.
One in seven households reported to the ONS that they are worried about food running out before they have money to buy more. Families with children are being hit particularly hard.
“The recent ONS data reveals the stark reality that people with children are more than twice as likely to worry about running out of food before they’re able to afford more,” said Lane.
At the same time, 15% of households surveyed said they were “somewhat” or “very worried” about food running out and not being able to restock, with those from a black and minority ethnic disproportionately impacted (46%).
This fear is not unwarranted. The ONS reported how one in 20 households had run out of food in the past two weeks and been unable to afford to buy more. Meanwhile, more than one in 10 (11%) of households said they could not afford to eat a balanced diet.
The data follows a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) last week which revealed how one million children under-four are now growing up in poverty, with some children knowing nothing but financial deprivation. Poverty in early years has long-term impacts on a child’s cognitive development as well as their health and wellbeing.
In response to the ONS data, JRF chief analyst Peter Matejic said: “These distressing figures show the effects of this winter crisis will stay with many families for a long time.”
Cost of Living Crisis is a Health Crisis
Unsurprisingly, there was a large overlap of those households that are fearful of running out of food, and those who are struggling with cold conditions: 70% of those who said they had run out of food in the past two weeks, were also not comfortably warm at home. This suggests that people are having to make the difficult choice between heating and eating.
Cold homes, going without food, and being unable to afford a balanced diet have profound health implications.
One in four teenagers living in cold houses are at risk of experiencing multiple mental health problems, compared to one in 20 adolescents who have always lived in warm housing. In 2019, 8,500 people died in England and Wales due to cold homes, with older people disproportionately impacted. The excess deaths in 2022 were among the worst in half a century.
But there are other health and hygiene implications to the cost of living crisis, too. Up to 40% of people say they are taking fewer baths and showers, while 2% are unplugging the fridge/freezer to save energy, putting people at risk of food poisoning and bugs. One in 14 people had cut down on medication to save on prescription costs – despite the potential health implications of not taking medicines as prescribed.
“The Government must put in place a child poverty strategy to deliver on its manifesto commitment to urgently tackle child poverty and ensure children across the country have the happy and healthy childhoods they deserve,” said Lane, responding to the ONS data.
“Without substantial changes, people will continue to be unable to afford the essentials which so many of us take for granted,” Matejic agreed.
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