The climate crisis poses a “significant and growing threat” to health in the United Kingdom, according to the country’s top public health official.
Prof Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, told the Guardian that there is a widespread misconception that a warmer climate will result in net health benefits due to milder winters. However, she claims that the climate emergency will have far-reaching health consequences, including threats to food security, flooding, and mosquito-borne diseases.
“This summer’s heatwave really brought home to people the direct impact,” Harries said. “But it’s the scope of the impact.” It’s not just the temperature.”
Harries said the UK needed to build resilience to protect the population from the health effects of extreme weather events, referring to the recent floods in Pakistan.
“Colleagues from Pakistan… are dealing with the effects of flooding.” “They’re dealing with stagnant water and increased risks of sewage overflowing into publicly accessible water spaces,” she explained. “We are seeing some of the things that could happen in the United Kingdom.”
The goal, she added, is not to paint a “doom and gloom scenario,” but to identify threats for which the UK could prepare.
Harries announced the establishment of a Centre for Climate and Health Security at the UKHSA’s annual conference in Leeds this week. She argued that the threat to health should be considered as part of the UK’s broader climate policy, which includes the commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Even if climate change action is taken, “there is an inbuilt element of temperature advance that we can’t control,” she said, and this would necessitate health adaptations.
This summer, the UK experienced record temperatures of 40.3 degrees Celsius, as well as six separate heatwave periods that resulted in over 2,800 excess deaths. “If several planes all exploded and we lost that many people,” Harries said, “it would be front-page news in terms of health protection.”
It is predicted that the number of heat-related deaths will triple by 2050, with the hottest summers on record in recent years becoming “normal” summers. “That’s a significant near-term risk for us,” she explained. “There are things we can do about it, so we should do something about it.”
In contrast to hotter European neighbors like Spain or Italy, the UK’s infrastructure is not designed to allow people to live and work in such conditions. “[Hot] European countries will have air conditioning on a regular basis, as well as stone floors that keep the buildings cool.” “We don’t have that in the UK,” Harries explained. “There is an absolute need to consider what our buildings will look like in the future.”
Lifestyle changes such as not going outside in the middle of the day during the summer and longer summer vacations for schools may also play a role in the future, she says.
“We have a lot to learn from countries with warmer temperatures right now,” she said. “If we want to be a hot country soon, we have to think the same way.”
In terms of annual excess deaths, the climate crisis was likely to have an immediate benefit in the UK due to warmer winters, according to Harries. However, other factors may soon reverse this trend. As temperatures rise, Europe becomes more vulnerable to infectious diseases that were previously only found in the tropics. The Asian tiger mosquito, which transmits dengue fever and chikungunya, has established itself in southern Europe, and this year France experienced its most severe dengue outbreak yet, which mosquitos can only transmit efficiently when average temperatures rise above 28 degrees Celsius.
“In France, they’ve had cases of infectious disease that you’d expect to see in tropical climates, and the vector has come all the way up to Paris,” Harries explained. “We are seeing the progression of this impact in European countries.”
Asian Tiger mosquito eggs have been found in the UK’s south-east, and the Culex modestus mosquito, which can transmit West Nile virus, has been found in Kent and Essex. “We’ve already beefed up [our surveillance program], but it’s one of those areas where we need to raise the alarm and build capacity ahead of time,” she explained.