The climate crisis poses a “significant and growing threat” to health in the UK, the country’s most senior public health expert has warned.
Speaking to the Guardian, Prof Dame Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said there was a common misconception that a warmer climate would bring net health benefits due to milder winters. But the climate emergency would bring far wider-reaching health impacts, she said, with food security, flooding and mosquito-borne diseases posing threats.
“The heatwave this summer really brought home to people the direct impact,” said Harries. “But it’s the breadth of the impact. It’s not just the heat.”
Referring to the recent floods in Pakistan, Harries said the UK needed to build resilience to protect the population from the health impacts of extreme weather events.
“Colleagues from Pakistan … are suffering from the impacts of flooding. They are dealing with stagnant water, higher risks of sewage overflowing into publicly accessible water spaces,” she said. “We are seeing in some of the things that could be happening in the UK.”
The aim is not to paint a “doom and gloom scenario”, she added, but to identify threats for which the UK could prepare.
Speaking at the UKHSA’s annual conference in Leeds this week, Harries launched a Centre for Climate and Health Security. She argued that the threat to health should be considered as part of the UK’s broader climate policy, including the commitment to bring greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2050.
Viewed purely in terms of annual excess deaths, the climate crisis was likely to have an interim benefit in the UK due to warmer winters, Harries said. But other factors could soon reverse this trend. As temperatures rise, Europe is becoming vulnerable to infectious diseases historically seen in the tropics. The Asian tiger mosquito, which carries dengue fever and chikungunya, is now established in southern Europe and this year France experienced its most severe outbreak yet of dengue, which mosquitos can transmit efficiently only when average temperatures rise above 28C.