NHS is unprepared for risks posed by climate change, warn leading UK health bodies

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: (Published 30 March 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;352:i1781 Infographic showing examples of interventions that target both climate and health
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

A newly formed coalition of leading UK health bodies has written to England’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to urge that the NHS should be better prepared to deal with climate change risks.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, which includes numerous royal colleges and The BMJ among its members, said that NHS services were ill equipped for dealing with the risks posed by extreme weather events, such as flooding and heatwaves, that were becoming more intense and frequent as the climate changes.

It said that the threats posed “direct risks to people’s health and systemic threats to hospitals and health services,” alongside other factors such as increased air pollution.

The alliance, as well as calling on the government to ensure that action plans are in place across the health service, will seek to engage and support health professionals and communicate to the public about measures that can tackle climate change and improve public health.

The alliance highlighted that as many as 14% of ambulance, fire, and police stations and 8% of healthcare buildings in England operate in flood risk zones. It said that this placed as many as 357 fire, ambulance, and police stations, and 2000 hospitals, care homes, and general practice surgeries at risk of river and coastal flooding after local flood defences were accounted for.

It also highlighted the overhaul of the health authorities’ strategy in France after 15 000 people died during the 2003 European heatwave, which led to fewer deaths during a worse heatwave in 2010.

In its letter to Hunt, the alliance warned that only 18% of clinical commissioning groups and one third of NHS providers have adequate plans in place to respond to the additional risks of climate change, which are expected to increase in future years. It said that the government should ensure that all NHS bodies and local authorities were equipped to implement “robust adaptation plans” and should report on these each year.

It highlighted the damage caused to infrastructure by severe floods in the north of England this winter, which prompted army trucks to be stationed as ambulances at a hospital in Lancaster after flooding cut the city’s power and blocked most access routes.

The alliance also said that the NHS should encourage simple preventive measures that tackle climate change and improve public health outcomes, such as walking or cycling instead of driving.

Nicholas Watts, director of the alliance, said, “First and foremost, it’s about making sure that local NHS providers are prepared, they know how to respond to more severe, more extreme weather events, they are properly and adequately resourced, and are receiving strong signals from the Department of Health that this is a priority for them.”

Watts continued, “Given the importance of climate change and the relationship to public health, the alliance is asking the Department of Health and the secretary of state to act as a leader here . . . really stepping up to the plate . . . in the way that the profession has done on a range of other issues.”

John Ashton, the Faculty of Public Health’s president, said, “The Zika virus epidemic in South America, and the impact of heatwaves in Europe, including in the UK, clearly demonstrate the devastating effects that result when the public and the health systems they rely on are unprepared for and overwhelmed by new challenges.

“France now has an action plan in place which reduced the 2010 heatwave death toll. Let’s not wait for disaster on this scale to strike the UK before we are properly prepared.”

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