Cold and damp homes will put those most vulnerable to COVID-19, including older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions, at an increased risk of the virus this winter – particularly in the event of a second lockdown.
According to data cited in the report released today by the Centre for Ageing better, 4.3 million homes in England are what the government defines as ‘non-decent’ putting the health and wellbeing of their estimated 10 million inhabitants at risk.
The report highlights that people who have been identified as most at risk of COVID-19, including older people, those with pre-existing health conditions and Black, Asian and ethnic minority groups, are more likely to be living in non-decent homes, along with those on low incomes.
One of the most common reasons for non-decency is excess damp and cold which has a significant impact on health – in England, around one in five excess deaths during winter are attributed to cold housing.
The report warns that the financial pressures stemming from COVID-19 may make it harder for homeowners to make the changes needed to their homes, with approximately 2.5 million owner occupied households failing to meet the standards (17% of all owner-occupied homes). Those living in the private rented sector are also of concern as 25% of these households are in a non-decent condition (1.1 million homes).
A winter lockdown could also see increased fuel bills and exacerbate fuel poverty, with people spending more time in their homes and struggling to keep poorly insulated homes warm for longer periods. Spending extended periods exposed to cold can exacerbate or induce respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, in turn increasing the risk of contracting COVID-19, and the severity.
The Centre for Ageing Better is calling on the government to make sure at-risk groups have the support they need now to make their homes warmer, free from damp and mould, and safer. For some this means providing trusted information and advice to signpost them towards those who can help. For others, this will require more direct intervention such as financial support. Government must also work with landlords to ensure that rental properties are safe.
Evidence presented in the report shows that interventions to improve housing quality, both in and outside of the home can be a highly cost-effective means of improving health outcomes. Every £1 spent on improving warmth in homes occupied by at risk households can result in £4 of health benefits, while £1 spent on home improvement services to reduce falls is estimated to lead to savings of £7.50 to the health and care sector.
In the longer term, much more needs to be done to fix the poor state of England’s housing, the Centre for Ageing Better warns, with our existing housing stock amongst the worst in Europe. Poor quality and non-decent homes are also a major contributor to health inequalities.
Holly Holder, Senior Evidence Manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, said:
“Winter is always a worrying time for people living in poor-quality, cold and damp homes, particularly for those people who struggle to afford to heat them and keep them warm. This winter millions could find the danger they face is even greater. Spending long periods of time in a cold, damp and unsafe home is bad for people’s health and could increase the risk of serious consequences if someone were to contract COVID-19.
“The government urgently needs to reach out to these at-risk groups so any immediate interventions can be made to make homes warmer, free of damp and safer. We also need government to address the crisis in the quality of housing and recognise the key role that housing plays in the health resilience of our communities.”