The British Red Cross has issued a call for a “cultural shift” in the way heatwaves are perceived in the UK, highlighting a trend revealed by polling that showed more than a third of adults in the country view heatwaves solely as a future concern.
The polling results indicate a gap in awareness and urgency surrounding the issue.
“We now need a cultural shift to translate concern into action,” British Red Cross climate policy adviser Adeline Siffert said.
“National and local government should support changes in our homes and communities, so people remain safe despite the changing climate.”
As temperatures soared to record-breaking highs of 40ºC during the summer last year, there were 3,271 excess deaths.
The UK government declared a first ever national emergency due to high temperatures.
The findings of the survey paint a stark picture of the impact of these heatwaves on communities and reveal the urgent need for comprehensive adaptation strategies and awareness campaigns.
The survey, conducted in June, captured the sentiments of 2,000 UK adults and highlighted the significant toll that heatwaves have taken on public health.
Key findings of the survey
The charity's polling reveals that 37 per cent of respondents believe heatwaves will be only a future problem for the UK.
Despite being vulnerable to heat, more than a third of certain groups – including over-75s (35 per cent), outdoor workers (34 per cent) and top-floor flat residents (33 per cent) – do not consider themselves at risk.
A third of UK adults (33 per cent) report never having seen information on how to protect themselves during a heatwave.
Ms Siffert told The National: "We see a need for an information campaign to improve public awareness and understanding.
"We'd also like to see tailored information for people various 'at-risk' groups, so people can understand who's more vulnerable to heat and see information that is relevant to them."
More than half (56 per cent) have thought about making home modifications to reduce overheating but have refrained, often due to financial constraints or not owning the property.
And more than a third (39 per cent) of respondents feel that the UK government is unprepared for a heatwave.
“We need to get the message out there about who is at risk in hot weather and how they can stay safe,” Ms Siffert said.
“There are simple practical steps that can help people vulnerable to heat risk. We need to adapt, and we need to do this now.”
Although a majority of respondents agreed that government agencies play a vital role in ensuring public preparedness, many felt that the government's level of readiness was inadequate.
The British Red Cross emphasised the need for comprehensive, co-ordinated and targeted communication strategies to enhance public awareness and encourage proactive measures.
"A new system of alerts via government websites is a good start, but we need a wider campaign that reaches people when they're not right in the middle of an emergency, so they can prepare and adapt," Ms Siffert told The National.
Vulnerabilities in current emergency system
Analysis of the 2022 response to the heatwaves showed that the existing emergency system was stretched to its limits, revealing vulnerabilities in the nation's ability to effectively manage such crises.
The heatwaves also exposed the mounting economic impacts of heatwaves, shedding light on the urgent need for improved preparedness and adaptation strategies to mitigate future risks.
The survey's findings also shed light on the dire future projections for heatwaves in the UK.
Climate change projections indicate that hot summers are becoming increasingly common, with the likelihood of such events reaching 50 per cent to 60 per cent by mid-century.
As temperatures rise, the nation faces heightened risks not only from heatwaves but also from water stress, droughts, wildfires and air pollution.
The impacts of heatwaves are diverse, affecting various sectors of society.
However, the most vulnerable populations face compounded risks due to factors such as social isolation, underlying health conditions and insecure immigration status.
The survey underscores the need for targeted strategies to protect these at-risk groups from the adverse effects of heatwaves.
Recognising the urgency of the situation, the British Red Cross has taken proactive measures to address the growing climate crisis.
The organisation has developed a UK Climate Adaptation Programme, aiming to ensure that Crisis and Emergency Response services are prepared for climate-related emergencies.
In addition, the British Red Cross is committed to providing communities with high-quality advice and resources to prepare for weather-related emergencies.
“Last year’s heatwave should act as an alarm call for the future. Higher temperatures affect everything from travel, infrastructure to the NHS, and increase the number of excess deaths,” Ms Siffert said.
“With more hot summers predicted, we must act now to keep people safe and save lives.”
While individual and organisational efforts are crucial, the survey findings emphasise the necessity for government action at all levels.
The report highlights a lack of progress in climate adaptation policies and a gap in community preparedness and response, signalling the need for stronger government initiatives.
The British Red Cross advocates urgent government action that prioritises vulnerable populations and communities while recognising the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.