Heatwaves: adapting to climate change Contents


Higher summer temperatures are regarded by many as a welcome change in the UK’s climate, but heatwaves threaten health, wellbeing and productivity. In the August 2003 heatwave temperatures reached 38.5°C in England, and there were 2,193 heat-related deaths across the UK in just 10 days. The Met Office predicts there is a risk that heatwaves of a similar intensity will occur every other year by the 2040s.

The average number of heat-related deaths in the UK is expected to more than triple to 7,000 a year by the 2050s. Older people are particularly vulnerable and suffer increased fatalities from cardiac and respiratory disease during heatwaves. As the UK’s population ages, there will be an increasing number of people at risk from heatwaves. The Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change has classified “risks to health, wellbeing and productivity from high temperatures” as a high-risk priority area that requires more action. Yet despite this recognition of the severity of the risk, the Government does not provide clear information for the public on the developing threat of heatwaves, and there is no commonly accepted definition of a heatwave in the UK. The Minister for Public Health and Primary Care recognised that the public tend to see heatwave alerts as “barbecue alerts.”

Although heatwaves have become more frequent, our inquiry revealed the need for clear Government leadership and cross-departmental collaboration on preparation for heatwaves. Government Ministers were keen to stress the “huge role” of local authorities in adapting to heatwaves, however we only received evidence from one local authority. The Local Government Association stated that they “do not have a bespoke work programme on climate change adaption.” Funding for programmes to support local authority climate change adaptation was withdrawn in 2015/16, leading to the closure of numerous regional climate change partnerships. A lack of monitoring of local authority capacity has allowed heatwave adaptation to slip to the bottom of the pile. For instance, although cities experience higher temperatures than rural areas due to the “urban heat island” effect, policies to address overheating are not generally included in local authority spatial plans. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should fulfil its responsibility to ensure effective adaptation by monitoring local adaptation progress and providing additional support. The Government should introduce an urban green infrastructure target in the National Planning Policy Framework to ensure towns and cities are adapted to more frequent heatwaves in the future.

Although adaptation to heatwaves spans the remit of many Government departments, our inquiry found that there is a silo approach to policies for heatwave risk. Due to the significant health effects of heatwaves, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government should take steps to address the heat-health issues of overheating buildings. At current temperatures, one in five of the UK’s homes overheat, but Government Ministers were unclear about whether building regulations should address the health aspects of overheating. The current lack of regulation to prevent overheating, means that new developments, including hospitals and care homes, which will be around for the next 70 years will add to the number of buildings that overheat. The Government should recognise the importance of protecting public health by introducing building regulations to stop new buildings overheating, and make the use of a dynamic thermal-modelling test a regulatory requirement for new buildings.

The fragmented responsibilities of public health and healthcare leaders have led to uncertainties around heatwave resilience in health and social care systems. Public Health England produces recommendations for NHS organisations, but does not review uptake of them. Although excess deaths in nursing homes increased by 42% in some parts of the UK during the 2003 heatwave, homes are still not required to report against NHS England’s core standards of Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response. NHS England should include overheating as part of Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response assurance, and ensure that all hospitals and NHS operated nursing homes are compliant. The Care Quality Commission should inspect for heatwave resilience, and ensure that overheating risk forms part of its inspection for safety and suitability of health and social care premises. NHS England should issue guidance on planning for summer pressures, to ensure that adequate steps are taken to prepare the healthcare system for more frequent heatwaves

Heatwaves can also have negative effects on critical national infrastructure such as transport, digital systems and water supply, leading to economic and public health consequences. High temperatures double the likelihood of service failure on railways. Buckling railways tracks are costly to repair, and, to avoid them, trains are often run at reduced speeds, leading to longer journey times, sometimes in uncomfortably hot carriages. Research on the economic consequences of heatwaves concluded that there was a more significant cost to the economy than benefit and that in 2010, approximately five million staff days were lost due to overheating above 26°C. Based on an average staff cost of £150 per day, this resulted in an economic loss of £770 million. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should coordinate a study on heat-health risks on transport, and how this contributes to economic loss during heatwaves. The UK’s water supply is expected to reduce by 4–7% and this will be exacerbated by the increasing demand for water during heatwaves, particularly in cities. However, the Government has weakened its water efficiency ambitions and continues to fail to introduce sustainable urban drainage systems, which bring multiple benefits.

Published: 26 July 2018