Some 1200 more Scots were taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia last year as the nation suffered the brunt of the cost of living crisis, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

Calls are now being made by anti-poverty campaigners for government action to support the most vulnerable struggling with energy costs with bills at almost double that paid just three years ago despite a price cap imposed by the regulator Ofgem to keep prices down.

It comes as it has been revealed the UK government has appeared to rule out the introduction of a special tariff for those in need in time for this winter - a move in the past supported by ScottishPower's chief executive Keith Anderson.

Energy Action Scotland has warned that deaths caused by cold damp homes will escalate this winter if action is not taken to support those who are struggling with high bills.

Scottish Ambulance Service data has revealed that an average of 200 patients a week were taken to hospital last year with hypothermia classed as a temperature of less than 35C.

Some 10241 people needed treatment in 2022/23 - that's 1254 more than in the last pre-pandemic year of 2019/20.

The overwhelming bulk of the cases were in the autumn to winter months where the numbers soared by over 1000 - from 5049 to 6062.

December and January saw the biggest spike in cases rising by just over 30% - from just over 830 patients in a month to nearly 1100.

But there was even a spike of 241 in the spring and summer number - from 3938 to 4179.

The Herald: East Lothian MP, Kenny MacAskill, spoke about Scottish independence at the Wee ALBA book launch in Tranent last week

Former justice secretary now East Lothian MP and fair energy prices campaigner Kenny MacAskill who has been fighting for special energy bill rates for those in fuel poverty said the numbers were "shocking".

The Alba Party deputy leader said: "People are literally suffering and even dying from the cold. We need to tackle the disease not the symptoms. The reason this is happening is because people cannot afford to heat their homes. It’s why there needs to be a social tariff for the poor and vulnerable to ensure that they can access heat and power."

Most of Scotland who have access to gas have been partly shielded from the worst of bill rises by the government’s Energy Price Guarantee introduced last October – which bills to £2,500 for the average UK household.

From last weekend, that guarantee was replaced by a cap imposed by the energy regulator Ofgem, which will mean the typical household will now pay £2,074 a year on its gas and electricity bill.

But that is still double what it was in 2020 leading to anti-poverty groups fearing more will continue to suffer while over a third of Scots households are already living in fuel poverty.

And there have been worries that there is no indication of further financial support going forward to replace the £400 bills discount provided last winter by government.

According to Scottish Government modelling estimates, from October 2022, there were around 860,000 households in fuel poverty in Scotland - around 35% of homes.

That is 247,000 more than in 2019 when the last Scottish House Condition Survey (SHCS) showed 613,000 households were in fuel poverty - around 25% of homes.

Fuel poverty relates to households that must spend a high proportion of their household income to keep their home at a reasonable temperature. It is affected by three key factors - a household’s income, their fuel costs, and their energy consumption, which in turn is affected by the energy efficiency of the home.

The Herald:

It is defined in Scotland, that after housing costs, the total fuel costs needed to maintain a satisfactory heating regime are more than 10% of the household’s total taxable income.

An analysis from February 2022 showed that levels of fuel poverty in Scotland range from 19% in East Renfrewshire, 26% in West Lothian and 27% in Midlothian to 57% in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, 47% in Highland and 46% in Argyll and Bute.

Hypothermia occurs when the human body loses more heat than it can generate and drops below 35°C.

Babies, the elderly and homeless people are at particular risk of hypothermia. Symptoms include shivering, tiredness, pale skin and low energy.

It is treated by a slow and steady increase in temperature. Without this, hypothermia is fatal.

Frazer Scott, chief executive of Energy Action Scotland, which has tracked the hypothermia cases said: “The reality of the energy price crisis is laid bare in these alarming numbers. People across Scotland unable to afford energy to heat their homes are freezing for the lack of adequate support.

“The human toll can be seen in the shocking increase in hypothermic people being seen by the Scottish Ambulance Service and in hospital. In an average year, Scotland loses six people every day of winter to cold, damp homes. Since the price hikes have caused tens of thousands of households such suffering and hardship, we are seeing the numbers of people suffering from the ill effects of cold skyrocket.

“NHS Scotland is bearing the brunt of this toll on public health with no levers to support the people it is seeing in huge numbers."

The group that fights to end fuel poverty said the Scottish Government should integrate housing into local arrangements across Scotland’s Health & Social Care Partnerships to ensure people suffering the physical toll of cold damp homes can immediately get a referral that ensures they are in homes heated to an adequate level.

The Herald:

Mr Scott said: "This is a basic need for wellbeing. Financial support must be more accurately targeted at those most in need and people cannot wait for support, they must have it as the temperature drops, not as winter ends.

“With no decrease in prices on the horizon, now is the time to put plans in place to ensure lives are protected."

“If we continue to ignore people in our communities freezing in their own homes, we will see the number of deaths escalate beyond already unacceptable levels. It is 2023 and yet we hear clinicians expect to see an increase in child mortality caused by cold, damp homes. A new strategy has to be in place before the beginning of winter with metrics to improve support and targeting.

“A year from now we will know the toll on human life caused by last winter. It is vital that others are protected from the same fate.”

The introduction of a special social tariff to ease the effect of price hikes for those in fuel poverty, paid for by those who can afford to pay or through government support former part of Mr Anderson's plan tabled with ministers last year to help ease the pressure on people struggling to pay their energy bills.

But the UK government appears to have ruled out such a reform in time for this winter.

When asked by Mr MacAskill whether the government plans to introduce a new social energy tariff before the coming winter, Amanda Solloway, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy Consumers and Affordability said merely that they were "exploring the best approach to consumer protection from April 2024 as part of wider retail market reforms".

Mr MacAskill said: "It's applied in Europe and the Tory Government hinted at it but are now saying it won’t be in this winter. That means that once again ambulances will be getting called out to people suffering not from disease but poverty. In Energy Rich Scotland that people suffer from fuel poverty is perverse."

According to energy industry consultancy, Cornwall Insight power prices in Britain will not shift below pre-2022 levels until the late 2030s.

It says the surging demand for power as the main driver behind this trend, as the move to electric heating and transport over the next decade places increasing pressure on the grid. Household energy bills are expected dip again to below £2,000 a year from October, according to latest forecasts.

Cornwall Insight said it thinks the price cap on energy bills will fall to £1,978.33 from October from July’s £2,074, but rise again from January to £2,004.40, based on Ofgem’s current measures.

However, the regulator is adjusting its definition of the average household’s consumption from October, down from the current 2,900 kWh a year for electricity to 2,700 kWh, and from 12,000 kWh for gas to 11,500 kWh, to reflect consumers using less energy to cut costs in the face of high prices.

Based on Ofgem’s adjusted definitions of average usage, Cornwall Insight has forecast that the regulator will announce price caps of £1,871 a year from October and £1,900 from January.

Scots energy minister Gillian Martin said: “Nobody should suffer from hypothermia through fuel poverty. Although energy matters are reserved, the Scottish Government is continuing to do everything we can within our limited powers to support as many as possible with their bills. This includes trebling our Fuel Insecurity Fund to £30 million this year to provide practical help to those who are most at-risk of self-rationing or self-disconnecting.

“I again urge the UK Government to support vulnerable households which continue to struggle with their energy costs and to take the necessary steps – which only it can – to ensure that households never experience this again. This includes acting on calls for a social tariff mechanism that would provide a much needed safety net for those who need it the most.

“Our local and national fuel poverty programmes are already targeted at households that are most vulnerable to the effects of cold; providing help with energy efficiency improvements and heating; including local delivery and referrals; and we provide direct help with energy costs in some circumstances.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We spent billions to protect families when prices rose over winter covering nearly half a typical household's energy bill – and we’re now seeing costs fall even further with wholesale energy prices down by over two thirds since their peak.

“It’s positive households across the country will see their energy bills fall by around £430 on average from tomorrow, alongside the end of the pre-payment meter premium – lowering the rates pre-payment customers pay to the same amount as those on direct debit.”