In the winter of 1997 the Winter Fuel Allowance was first introduced, to ensure that everyone over 60 could heat their home properly during the coldest times of the year.

Now 20 years on it scarcely goes far enough.

Hard to heat homes, higher fuel bills and sometimes a reluctance to ask for help mean that around 300 elderly people in Cumbria die every winter as a direct or indirect result of the weather.

In the winter of 2015-2016 - the last for which figures are available - some 458 people died from it.

That is where Cumbria Community Foundation comes in. In 2010 it launched the Winter Warmth Fund, raising cash to provide grants for those who would struggle to keep warm and healthy at this time of year, and so potentially save their lives.

The money comes from donations from individuals and businesses and fundraising schemes. It also comes from some of the better-off recipients of the Winter Fuel Allowance, as the foundation’s grants and donations officer Annalee Holliday relates.

“Some people were telling us: ‘I don’t need it. Can I give it to someone who needs it more?’”

There are three principal reasons, Annalee explains, why the winter fuel allowance doesn’t cover everyone’s bills.

“Cumbria has a lot of old properties that are quite hard to heat.

“Many of them use oil, which works out a lot more expensive than gas.

“And there are older people with certain health issues who need to have their heating on all day, That can cost a lot of money.”

Last year the foundation raised £133,000 for the Winter Warmth Fund and this year it has a much higher target, of £150,000. “We’ve seen a steady increase in the money raised every year, which is great. Hopefully that will continue.”

It is vital, she adds, because demand for the service is also increasing annually. Part of this is down to better publicity about it. And part is due to Cumbria’s ageing population.

“In the last two or three years the number of people aged 60 and over has increased by around 10,000.

“We usually support about 1,000 people each year. We never have enough money, but we can only give out what we have.”

However various fundraising activities have been or are taking place. The largest by far is “The Big Sleep”, where volunteers will experience a night without heating by sleeping outdoors on the shores of Windermere on Saturday, January 27.

It costs £35 for adults to take part and £5 for children. and includes an evening meal, hot drinks and breakfast.

Those who can’t make it to Windermere can hold one closer to home. The First Wetheral Brownies will be holding theirs in a cold barn near Brampton, and a team from NHS Allied Health Professionals is holding one in Honister.

Last year more than £24,000 of the total came from Big Sleep fundraisers but Annalee points out that there are many other, smaller events.

“On Christmas Eve Keswick Alhambra Cinema held a screening of The Nutcracker, and raised £1,000.

“In December and January Rheged and Tebay Services are giving us the 5p charges for all their plastic carrier bags.”

People facing fuel poverty sometimes have to choose between eating and heating, but Cumbrian food chain Cranstons has a scheme to do both.

It is selling its steak and Eden Ale pies for £2 each, and 30p from each purchase goes towards the winter warmth appeal.

The pies are on sale from all their outlets until Saturday, February 10 and are expected to raise £350 to £450 for the fund.

“It’s just another way that businesses can get involved.”

All the money raised by the community foundation is distributed by Age UK, from its three Cumbrian bases in Carlisle, Whitehaven and Kendal.

Christina Timney is manager of the information and advice service at Age UK West Cumbria. She estimates that the Whitehaven office has given out around 150 grants of £150 each to clients in Allerdale and Copeland so far this winter - a marked increase on previous years.

“We have been busy since October,” she reports. “There has been very high uptake, higher than it was.”

Many of those receiving grants are their regular customers, such as people with a medical condition that isn’t going to improve.

But part of the increase, Christina believes, is down to greater awareness of it.

“There’s a big promotion every year,” she explains. “We have newsletters and flyers and we work with different partners to get the word out. Our helpline staff tell people about it.”

And so they receive more than enough enquiries. “Before we give a grant an assessment is carried out. People have to be over 60, in receipt of the state pension or pension credits, and have less than £3,000 in savings.”

And she adds that the Winter Fuel Allowance doesn’t cover it. “Not with weather like we’ve had!

“What people tell us is that the Winter Fuel Allowance lets them to turn the heating on. Our grants let them keep it on for longer.”

Those under 60 can also be at risk at this time of year, as Colin Cox, director of public health for Cumbria, points out.

“It’s not just the elderly,” he says. “There are a range of people who are particularly vulnerable in winter.

“Older people are certainly within that range. But there are also those with respiratory problems or cardiac problems, or certain chronic conditions.

“It’s not so much that people freeze to death. It’s that they become more susceptible to lung infections, or pneumonia, or heart attacks. You are more likely to suffer a severe heart attack in winter.”

The number of deaths due to winter is calculated by comparing the total with the number that would be expected in other seasons, and Mr Cox finds: “It does vary every year.”

There have been fears of a higher number this winter due to Australian flu but he says that this is nothing new, and is a strain of the virus that has been around for years.

“Flu circulates every year and there is the same risk of seasonal flu that there always is. It’s not as if Australian flu is something particularly special.

“But flu does kill people every year and the flu jab is still the best defence we’ve got.”

Elderly and vulnerable people should have had theirs by now and Mr Cox says: “It’s starting to get late in the season - but it’s not necessarily too late,

“I would encourage people to get one.”

The temperature needed to be comfortable at home also varies from person to person, but Mr Cox suggests 20 to 22 degrees Celsius would be a general recommendation, and a few degrees lower in a bedroom.

For those whose homes aren’t warm enough he suggests the simple, practical measures such as wearing an extra layer. “You can keep warm by drinking hot drinks and getting up and moving around on a regular basis.

“And people should look out for their vulnerable neighbours. Definitely go and check how they are in the cold spell.”

For the days may now be lengthening, but January and February can be colder, more dangerous months than December. “We aren’t halfway through the winter yet.”