Saturday, January 16, 2010

Springtime for Griffin

Nick Griffin, leader of the loony right British National Party, twits that:
While the Haiti earthquake is terrible, the winter death toll in Britain will be similar. No aid here though. ... Individuals should give whatever they feel appropriate, but Britain is bankrupt. 50,000 pensioners will die of cold this winter.
Remarks which were surpassed in their intelligence and perspicacity only by his next ones:
Here's a late night ? While all mammals fart, what about reptiles, amphibians & marsupuals? I reckon kangeroos must as they eat leaves. But crocodiles? Can any Aussie followers enlighten us? (sic)
Now obviously he's a horrible racist, etc, but we knew that already. He's the head of the BNP, that's his job. What's really scary and offensive is that no-one's called him out on his claim that 50,000 British pensioners will die of cold this winter.

The BBC, in their story, report Griffin's remarks, and in opposition, only quote Labour politician Glenis Willmott as saying that
Yes, people will die here this winter, even though the Labour government set up a welfare state that spends billions to help prevent too many deaths. Our government and local councils are quite rightly funded to do all they can to help everyone suffering from the cold. But I am also proud that our government will do all it can to help the people in Haiti ...
In other words, conceding his point. The reader is left with the impression that Griffin is basically correct. The truth is rather less dramatic. Griffin is referring to the statistics on excess winter deaths, of which there were 36,700 last winter, or rather 50,000 if you can only count in multiples of the numbers of fingers you have. We know this thanks to this website which provides all the stats, and specifically this report.

The excess winter deaths figure is simply winter deaths – average non-winter deaths, "winter" being December to March. So it's the number of "extra" deaths in those 4 months, compared to the average death rate for the other 8 months of the year. Because it turns out that more people die in winter than other times in the year -

Almost all of these people being over 65. But does this mean that the 36,700 pensioners "died of cold"? Of course not. They died, mostly, of things that old people are prone to die of - heart disease and respiratory disease, most notably the flu. Winter flu - seasonal influenza - is a well known killer of vulnerable people, including the elderly. Every winter, in every temperate country, there's an influenza epidemic, and some people unfortunately die. This is why we have seasonal flu vaccination. A death from seasonal flu is not a death from cold, at least not directly; being in a nice warm house won't save you.

Elderly people do occasionally die of hypothermia in winter - like in this case -but apart from such tragic accidents it's not even clear that the winter "death toll" represents premature deaths at all. Everyone dies sooner or later, and if someone dies in January rather than the following April, this is an "excess winter death", but it's not as if that person died much before their time.

Edit: Still further evidence that the excess winter mortality is not "deaths from cold" is the fact that there was no correlation between average winter temperature and the number of excess deaths over the past 10 years:
So there we have it. But it shouldn't be for bloggers like me to explain what's wrong with Griffin's argument. The Labour party spokesperson should have done it, instead of lamely protesting that the government were doing all they could. If sensible political parties are unable to respond to silly throwaway claims made by loonies on Twitter, democracy's in trouble.

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