Talking point

‘Snowflake Britain’: is the country overreacting to the heatwave?

As deaths rise, transport buckles and health services feel the strain, some are urging a bit of perspective

Tuesday became the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, according to provisional Met Office data showing that temperatures climbed above 40C.

The UK’s first ever “red extreme” warning for heat is in place across much of England, with people urged to stay inside and keep hydrated, medical services stretched to the limit and transport infrastructure literally melting in the extreme heat.

Yet as some commentators have pointed out, the record-breaking heatwave is par for the course in many countries, and perhaps Britain could do with a bit more Keep Calm and Carry On spirit.

Are we overreacting?

“Sunny day snowflake Britain had a meltdown,” declared the Daily Mail’s front page today after Monday left the country sweltering. If the heatwave was going to last two weeks instead of two days, this “national emergency-style rhetoric might be justified”, said the paper's columnist Stephen Robinson. “But it is incredible to think that 12 years into a Government led by Conservatives who are supposedly allergic to infantile wokery that the sort of querulous sentiments trotted out yesterday still rule the roost.”

He added that “anyone who says anything that flies in the face of this doom-laden agenda is immediately shouted down.”

Many BBC Breakfast viewers agreed, according to the Daily Express. The paper reported that many felt the broadcaster was “overreacting” in its coverage of the heatwave.

“People from other countries are often puzzled by the British attitude to the weather,” said Michael Deacon at  The Telegraph. “Not just because we’re always talking about it – but because, in their view, we’re so melodramatic about it.”

Even “our own broadcast media appear to think we’re a nation of helpless, frightened babies, incapable of looking after ourselves – hence the constant hysterical reminders to ‘keep cool’ and ‘stay hydrated’, as if, without their helpful prompting, these ideas would never occur to us,” he added.

Jeremy Clarkson had more than 50,000 likes on Twitter for posting: “It’s very hot in the south of France but so far as I know, there’s no DefCon 8 level 3 killer death heatwave warning in place.” But others responded angrily.

How the UK heatwave compares

For a country so obsessed with talking about the weather, the UK’s is relatively moderate in comparison to even our European neighbours.

According to EUObserver, more than 1,000 people across Europe have so far died because of record-breaking temperatures and devastating wildfires. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes in France, where temperatures have hit 44C, Portugal, Spain and Greece as firefighters try to contain fires.

While 40C heat was previously unheard of in the UK it is, in fact, commonplace in many countries around the world. The temperature in Phoenix, Arizona, for example, is forecast to hit 45C on Wednesday, “which is typical for the time of year”, said Deacon.

The heatwave is no joke

“In the United States and other countries more accustomed to it, such heat might scarcely register,” said The New York Times, “but essential infrastructure in those climates, from schools to public transportation to private homes, has been designed to deal with it, and people’s bodies are more acclimated to it.

“In Britain, the houses, especially older ones, were built to retain warmth, and their residents are similarly outfitted. Britons, in fact, are famously unprepared for extreme weather of all kinds – whether winter blizzards or summer downpours – and pavement-shimmering heat is no exception,” said the paper.

“Without human-caused climate change, the chance of 40C temperatures in the UK would be vanishingly small, an event with the potential to occur once every 1,000 years,” said New Scientist.

Yet it is a reality we are going to have to increasingly face up to in the years to come. We have entered “uncharted territory”, said The Guardian’s environment editor Damian Carrington, meaning “we cannot just cope as we have with previous hot spells”.

And countering all the talk of overreacting, Carrington said: “The impact of these extreme heatwaves on people is deadly.”

According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the number of people dying in the UK because of heatwaves is expected to rise from 2,500 in 2020 to 7,000 in 2050 unless action is taken.

“I think the major problem is global heating is perceived as being still a problem for the future,” said Professor Mike Tipton of the University of Portsmouth in The Guardian. “That’s the public health message that we really need to get across – this is a problem that we need to be dealing with now.”

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