Kit Malthouse – 2022 Statement on the Heatwave

The statement made by Kit Malthouse, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in the House of Commons on 20 July 2022.

I would like to make a statement on this week’s heatwave. Coningsby in Lincolnshire broke records yesterday when it registered a provisional reading of 40.3°C. According to the Met Office, no fewer than 34 locations around the United Kingdom exceeded the country’s previous highest temperature of 37.8°C, which was set in 2019.

We have seen a collective national endeavour to prepare for and manage the effects of the heat, from town hall to Whitehall and across various industries, to keep people safe and infrastructure functioning. From water companies and rail engineers to public servants across the land, everyone has pulled together, with members of the public responding in a responsible way that took the pressure off vital public services.

Our national resolve has been exemplified by our fire and rescue services, for many of which yesterday was the busiest day since world war two. They were undoubtedly stretched, but coped magnificently. The systems in place to make sure that the fire services can operate nationally as well as locally worked well. In tinderbox conditions, they have dealt with dozens of wildfires around the country over the past 24 hours. Fifteen fire and rescue services declared major incidents and handled emergency calls the length and breadth of the country.

Sadly, at least 41 properties have been destroyed in London, 14 in Norfolk, five in Lincolnshire and smaller numbers elsewhere. On behalf of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and, I am sure, the whole House, I would like to pass on our sincere condolences to those who have lost their homes or business premises. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is working closely with local authorities to provide support to them.

Throughout recent days, the Prime Minister has monitored our work and has been specifically briefed on a number of occasions; we briefed him again this morning. The Prime Minister was briefed during the wildfires by Mark Hardingham—the chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council—and the civil contingencies secretariat. He has passed on his thanks to all the brave firefighters who have sought to control the flames in such debilitating conditions. I would also like to pay my tribute to the fire control staff, officers and support teams for their essential work and to the other agencies that have made such tremendous efforts in recent days: the NHS, our emergency call handlers, the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, among many others.

Hon. Members will be relieved to know that some pressure on these services will now ease as the fiercest heat has subsided. Many incidents are now being scaled back. Thunderstorms are likely this afternoon, but for much of the country, more clement, dry conditions are the pattern for the coming days. The Met Office, however, stresses that the summer is likely to bring further hot weather and wildfire risk remains elevated. That is why we are treating this heatwave as an exacting test of our national resilience and contingency planning. As always, there is no room for complacency.

We have seen over the past few days what we can achieve when we prepare properly and then work closely together. Owing to the technical expertise of the weather forecasters who predicted with admirable precision the peak of the heatwave and how high the temperatures would be, the Government were able to launch an advance campaign of comprehensive public advice. Our early data shows how, well before the heatwave arrived, people were taking on board that advice from the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS, the chief and deputy chief medical officer, emergency services and key agencies on the ground.

Because of our established local networks and colleagues in the devolved Administrations, we had people spread across the UK ready to step in when it mattered. I am particularly grateful for the co-operation and support that we received from the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. We all need to manage these events together.

I would like to give some examples of how people taking the right action helped to mitigate the effects of the extreme weather, starting with the heeding of advice. Fully five times as many people accessed NHS England internet pages on how to manage the symptoms of heat exhaustion in the critical week beginning 11 July. We had feared that our vital 999 call services would come under untold pressure, yet as the mercury climbed inexorably on 18 July, fewer 999 calls but more 111 calls were made than the week before. That suggests that the public had heeded the advice to avoid 999 except in emergencies.

With travel, once again people were playing for the team. The public stayed at home to avoid the heat, not venturing far. The data bears that out: on Monday, footfall at major London stations was at approximately 35% of normal post-pandemic levels. Network Rail reports that passenger train numbers yesterday were approximately 40% down on the previous week. We did not forget those who cannot easily leave their homes; we asked people to look out for the elderly and for vulnerable family members and neighbours.

Tragically, 13 people are believed to have lost their lives after getting into difficulty in rivers, reservoirs and lakes while swimming in recent days; seven of them, sadly, were teenage boys. I would like to pass on our sincere condolences and those of the whole House to the families of the victims for their terrible loss.

Of course, we have still to work through the longer-term consequences of the heatwave. The true picture will not come until all incidents are analysed, all emergency teams are debriefed and all incident logs and data are reconciled. A great deal of data has yet to come in from colleagues in the devolved Administrations and from local authorities and agencies around the country. We recognise that we are likely to experience more of these incidents, and that we should not underestimate their speed, scope and severity. Britain may be unaccustomed to such high temperatures, but the UK, along with our European neighbours, must learn to live with extreme events such as these.

The Government have been at the forefront of international efforts to reach net zero, but the impacts of climate change are with us now. That is why we have a national adaptation programme under the leadership of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As we have seen in recent days, we will continue to face acute events driven by climate change. It is the responsibility of Cabinet Office Ministers to co-ordinate work across Government when those events take place.

The Government will continue to build our collective resilience. To that end, the national resilience strategy, about which I was asked on Monday, will be launched at the earliest possible opportunity by the incoming Administration. In the meantime, I will continue to co-ordinate the work of teams across Government in building resilience to make sure that the country is ready to meet the challenges of the autumn, the winter and beyond. In that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.