Health and care services report

First climate adaptation for health plan announced

The first Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the health sector, a five-year plan covering 2019-24, was announced in October 2019 by the Department for Health.

The plan was developed under 2018’s National Adaptation Framework and the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, using the Sectoral Planning Guidelines for Climate Change Adaptation, also drafted in 2018. The plan applies to the Department of Health, the agencies of the Department, including the HSE, HSE service providers and non-HSE health sector services.

A joint Department-HSE team developed and drafted the Plan, drawing on the views of the public, stakeholders and literature reviews conducted by the Department. The implementation of the actions set out by the Plan will be overseen by a newly founded Climate Change Oversight Group for the health sector, which will be led by the Department.

The main areas of focus for the Plan are UV radiation and sun exposure, as well as worsening air pollution due to climate change. As it stands, over 11,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year and the National Cancer Registry predicts this figure to more than double by 2045. In 2014, the European Environment Agency estimated 1,050 premature deaths occurred in Ireland secondary to particulate matter.

The Plan also covers the types of severe weather events that are likely to become more frequent, such as windstorms, heatwaves, flooding and extreme cold snaps. The island of Ireland currently has the highest rate of excess winter deaths — defined as “the number of deaths that take place during winter months compared with the rest of the year” — in Europe with 2,800 excess deaths per year. A 2013 study also found Ireland to have had 294 deaths in the last three decades related to heatwaves. It is said within the Plan that “while climate change projections see generally warmer winters that may reduce the risk of cold-related illness, significant health impacts will continue from extreme cold snaps and more frequent heavy precipitation events during winter, including snow, sleet or hail”.

The Plan comes with eight key recommended actions as they relate to these environmental risks:

  • The application of a Health in All Policies approach to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment’s Clean Air Strategy;
  • Increasing public awareness of UV risks and influencing the changing of behaviours;
  • Uniform system-wide severe weather planning;
  • Health Impact Assessments across all sectors, in line with the World Health Organisation’s Health in All Policies guidelines;
  • The undertaking of a major survey of health infrastructure resilience;
  • The conduction of epidemiology and research on climate change health impacts and adaptation policies; and
  • The development of a new public health heat wave plan.

In his foreword to the Plan, Minister for Health Simon Harris TD said: “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing us and it is clear we need to step up our response to this growing issue. The window of opportunity is closing, and it is essential we take adequate steps now to respond to this challenge.”

Harris concluded his foreword by stating his hope that the Plan would prove to be “the start of an important conversation that must continue”.

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