Winter’s first big blast has hit Cumbria, if not as severely as some forecasts predicted. Nature cannot always be tamed, as this county knows all too well. But we can limit its effect on health and on our ability to get around.

Health workers and gritter drivers are among those on the frontline. Meanwhile vulnerable people can help themselves and their neighbours can also play a part.

An average of 300 deaths occur in Cumbria each year due to the effects of cold weather. The victims are mainly elderly people.

Mary Bradley is chief executive of Age UK West Cumbria. Her most obvious advice is also the most important: keep warm.

“Older people sometimes don’t realise they’re cold,” says Mary. “They often don’t move around enough.

“Have additional clothing. We advise people not to have just one room heated. Moving from one hot room to the rest of the house being cold is bad.

“Make sure they eat warm food. If medicines are needed there should be enough to last through a spell of bad weather.

“And make sure there are people who can do the shopping for them so they don’t need to go out in slippery weather. Neighbours should check they’re all right. Do shopping, clear the snow.”

Such advice is often given. But is it acted upon?

Mary says: “We’ve got patches of really good community spirit in Cumbria – look at the floods.

“But there are communities and villages where older people live that are largely holiday lets. Quite a lot live in isolated places, areas like the Solway plain.

Mary Bradley

“People assume elderly people have all got families but they haven’t. They might live away. Or in bad weather, even if they live five miles away they might not be able to get to them.

“It’s just about being more aware. Ring someone or make the effort to knock on the door and ask how they are.”

Neighbourliness needs older people to be receptive, which may not always be the case initially.

“It’s not usually an issue of trust,” says Mary. “It’s just an issue of ‘I want to be independent’.”

She urges people to accept help from neighbours if they need it and to ring Age UK if they are struggling, rather than choose between eating and heating.

“If it gets really bad we’ve got a database of people that are at risk. We ring them and check they’re all right.”

Government help includes the Winter Fuel Payment, ranging from £100 to £300 and the Cold Weather Payment. This is £25 for each seven-day period of very cold weather between November 1 and March 31.

Age UK also administers Cumbria Community Foundation’s Winter Warmth Fund.

Those who meet the criteria, based on a phone assessment, are entitled to £125 towards their heating bills.

The fund is financed by donations. Many of these are from better-off pensioners who give their Winter Fuel Payment.

Last winter about 1,000 of the county’s older people were helped to keep warm through the fund, which gave £133,000 towards heating bills.

This winter more than 700 people have already benefited and £90,000 has been raised.

Annalee Holliday “For many people in Cumbria it is a real struggle to pay the heating bills and stay warm and healthy,” says Annalee Holliday, the community foundation’s grants and donor services officer.

“Cold home temperatures have an impact on people’s physical and mental health. It’s unbearable to think that among us there are older people who won’t survive the winter simply because they’re too cold.”

Cumbria’s Winter Ready campaign aims to make sure people have the right information and advice to cope with winter. It is a joint venture between the county council, the six district councils, Cumbria Community Foundation and the Environment Agency.

The website contains advice on staying well during the coldest time of year, with tips on how to keep warm, how to get a flu vaccination and taking care of neighbours. There’s also advice on potential dangers such as winter driving.

North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle and West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, is asking people to use its emergency services wisely. This was already the case at these under-pressure hospitals. But the colder months bring increasing pressures.

“A&E is for serious or life-threatening emergencies only,” points out Dr Jim Shawcross, consultant physician with the trust.

“There are other routes we encourage patients to use for non-emergency issues, such as seeing a pharmacist, a GP or by calling 111. In most cases this will mean they receive the advice and care they need much quicker.”

People are being urged not to visit friends and relatives in hospital if they are unwell themselves. Bugs such as norovirus can spread extremely quickly in hospitals – and can have a devastating impact.

Last week the winter vomiting bug forced staff at the Cumberland Infirmary to close its Beech wards, with at least 15 people showing symptoms. The virus was brought into the hospital by an unwell visitor who vomited in the surgical ward area.

Anyone who feels unwell or shows symptoms of norovirus such as diarrhoea or vomiting within the previous 48 hours should stay away.

Clive Graham Clive Graham, the trust’s director of infection prevention and control, said: “The norovirus infection is particularly serious when it gets into environments where people live or work in close proximity. In hospitals it can inevitably lead to ward closures as measures are taken to contain the infection and stop it spreading.

“It can also lead to staff illness and of course it increases the risk to patients who have other serious illnesses.”

Even getting to hospital can be impossible without the efforts of Cumbria County Council’s highways services department.

Cumbria has one of the largest road networks in the country. The council is responsible for maintaining nearly 5,000 miles. The Highways Agency looks after the M6, the A66 and some of the A595.

Winter maintenance is important both for safety and for the county’s economy. The council has set aside £3.7 million this year. It has 33 gritters, which can be fitted with snow ploughs and 24,000 tons of salt.

Keith Little, the councillor responsible for highways, says forecasting plays a key role in deciding which areas to treat.

“We monitor the whole time: ground temperatures, road surface temperature. Before lunchtime each day we have a good idea of what the weather will be like in certain areas of the county. We get our machinery ready to roll.

“We can’t get everywhere. We try and get the main routes where large amounts of traffic will be running. And where there are hospitals, and bus routes.

“Some farmers grit narrower roads.

Keith Little “And we have ‘snow champions’ in small communities. They can spread grit from bins.”

Keith advises people who feel they have to travel in bad weather to watch the forecast, drive carefully, take warm clothing, have their mobile phone charged and let someone know when they are travelling.

He even has an answer to the perennial question: how does the snow plough driver get to work?

“We usually fetch them in two or three hours before the snow arrives,” he says.

“That’s not to say it’s easy for them to get back.”

To contact Age UK Carlisle and Eden call 01228 536673 or 01768 863618. For Age UK West Cumbria call 08443 843 843.