Work needs to be done to tackle rural winter deaths

A graphic showing some of the factors relating to public health in Northumberland.
A graphic showing some of the factors relating to public health in Northumberland.

Winter deaths associated with cold homes and fuel poverty need to be tackled by health and council partners in Northumberland.

That’s one of the recommendations in the 2017 annual report by the county’s director of public health, Liz Morgan, which she presented at Thursday’s meeting of the council’s health and wellbeing board.

The report is titled The Causes of The Causes and looks at wider determinants on people’s health – education, employment, housing and transport – which have been shown to have a larger impact than the lifestyle issues that have historically been a focus for public-health activity.

Ms Morgan said that one study showed 57 per cent of a person’s health was attributable to wider determinants and these are issues which are in the sphere of influence of the local authority, although they are not solely the council’s responsibility.

She added that in Northumberland these determinants are heavily influenced by one of the key features of the county – its rurality.

For example, employment can often be seasonal or low-skilled and low-paid; homes in the countryside often don’t have central heating, meaning fuel poverty is a major concern; and distances are larger, with poorer transport links, so people can become isolated.

The report explains that traditional measures of deprivation are geared towards urban populations, largely due to the fact that 83 per cent of people nationally live in those areas, but in Northumberland that figure is just 46 per cent.

A map based on a different measure, which takes into account issues that affect rural communities including fuel poverty, hidden worklessness and the distances people need to travel to get to basic services, shows the vast rural areas in the north and west of the county as the most deprived and the urban areas in the south-east among the least deprived.

David Thompson, chairman of Healthwatch Northumberland, described the report as ‘a very timely reminder to all of us that a lot of work needs to be done in rural areas’.

Council leader Peter Jackson said that these issues ‘chime very will with what we see as general challenges across the county’ and mentioned a number of programmes being developed to tackle them, adding: “Those challenges are the reason we were so keen to get the North of Tyne devolution deal.”

As well as the recommendation to tackle excess winter deaths, among the others in the report is a Health In All Policies approach to ensure health and wellbeing considerations are taken into account when drawing up policies.

Another is a More Than Medicine approach for healthcare professionals so that doctors, nurses and others attempt to address some of the social determinants of health alongside clinical needs.

The health and wellbeing board is made up of councillors as well as representatives from organisations such as Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service