NHS bosses warn soaring energy bills will make people sick if government does not offer more support

Healthcare leaders say that thousands will develop illnesses as a result of not being able to afford heating this winter, while others will simply die from the cold - Libby Wiener reports

Growing numbers of people will fall ill this winter if the government does not do more to help with skyrocketing energy bills, NHS bosses have warned.

The NHS confederation, a membership body that supports and speaks for the healthcare system, said the UK is on the brink of a "humanitarian crisis" as households look ahead to a grim winter.

The health experts warned people will be forced to choose between heating and eating this winter unless they are given more help to pay bills, as pressure grows on the government to boost its planned £400 energy discount.

The warning comes after experts predicted the energy price cap will hit nearly £3,600 per year from October – before rising again in the new year.

In the confederation's letter to government ministers, Chief Executive Matthew Taylor said: “The country is facing a humanitarian crisis.

“Many people could face the awful choice between skipping meals to heat their homes and having to live in cold, damp and very unpleasant conditions.

“This in turn could lead to outbreaks of illness and sickness around the country and widen health inequalities, worsen children’s life chances and leave an indelible scar on local communities.”

Mr Taylor told ITV News that the new PM must recognise that 'if we have more people in fuel poverty, more in the cold' it will increase demand on the NHS

Mr Taylor said these outbreaks of illness will strike “just as the NHS is likely to experience the most difficult winter on record," as a flu outbreak looms and the threat of more Covid variants.

“Health leaders are clear that, unless urgent action is taken by the government, this will cause a public health emergency," he added.

Mr Taylor told ITV News: "The starting point at least needs to be that politicians need to recognise the reality and why we are in this position.

"Because it's no mystery we had a period of austerity where we saw very low growth in the health service spending.

"That led us to a situation at the beginning of Covid where we had 100,000 or so vacancies, we had an estate that was in a poor condition, you then add in two years of Covid and you've got this situation of unprecedented demand at all stages - whether it's GP services, mental health community services, our hospitals - more demand than we've ever seen before.

"Politicians need to accept that that is the reality and talk about what we're going to do with that reality."

'Things are pretty bad now, despite working flat out we see problems with ambulance response times and problems about backlogs in almost every part of the health service'

Dave Baker, who has a long-term spinal health condition which means he finds it very difficult to walk, is one of many Brits having to cut costs in order to keep up with bills and food.

“If it’s a choice between heating and eating, you’ve got to eat," he told ITV News.

Mr Baker has spinal spondylitis, where the spine and other areas of the body become inflamed, and having to turn off the heating to afford his food shopping means his condition will get worse.

Dave Baker has a spinal condition which will get worse in the cold. Credit: ITV News

“It’s a problem for me with my health issues because obviously with my spinal condition, a a cooler temperature is not going to help with my bones and muscles but also it affects my asthma as well," he said.

"I’m anxious. I’m anxious about bills. I’m anxious about food. And I think the whole UK are to be quite honest."

Ofgem, the energy regulator, is set to announce the new price cap, which will come into effect from October, next Friday.

The government's £400 energy discount for all homes is due to begin in October, with amounts deducted from bills in six instalments, or credited via vouchers for households for prepayment meters.

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Labour has proposed freezing the energy bills cap at its current level of £1,971 for the average household, with many of the biggest energy suppliers backing a similar idea.

Wes Streeting MP, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, responding to NHS leaders calling for action on energy bills, said: “Families are really worried about how they are going to afford soaring energy bills this winter.

"Many will be plunged into poverty by this cost of living crisis and be forced to make choices between eating and heating."

But the government has made it clear it will not do anything substantial until a new prime minister is in office on September 5.

In response to the NHS Confederation's concerns, ministers reiterated that support packages will be in place for families this winter, while Grant Shapps pointed the finger at Russia and Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine for the issues.

"There is a humanitarian crisis because Putin has gone to war... and we're seeing the knock-on impact of that across the west, across the world," said the transport secretary.

"This government will help to protect families in Britain by spending - already £37 billion - and it's fair to say that this government is on top of this."

But Labour has insisted MPs should cut their Parliamentary summer recess short to urgently intervene, insisting it is not too late.

Labour Shadow Minister Thangam Debbonaire said she has written to the prime minister, along with the Tory leadership candidates Mr Sunak and Ms Truss, to back that call.

She said: "If we got back into Parliament on Monday, we could legislate."

On Thursday, the trade body for energy companies called for more support on top of the £400 promised to households earlier this year.

“Time is running very short ahead of October and we know many customers are already struggling after the last price rise – so the predicted increases will simply be unaffordable for millions of households,” Dhara Vyas, Energy UK’s director of advocacy, said.

“Given the urgency, our industry believes the most practical way to help customers ahead of Christmas will be to increase the amount of support made through the existing bills support scheme.”