Winter deaths in Scotland have reached the highest level in 15 years, sparking concerns over how the health service will cope during the colder months.
New figures from National Records Scotland (NRS) laid bare the spike in mortality rates between December 2014 and March 2015, where 22,011 deaths were registered compared to 18,675 during the previous winter.
Criticisms were levelled at the Scottish Government for failing to plan ahead of this winter, with fears the high mortality rates could be repeated.
There is no single cause for the large increase with very few caused by hypothermia and flu, said Tim Ellis, NRS chief executive.
He added: “Despite the latest winter’s unusually high figure, the five-year moving average - which smooths out much of the year-to-year fluctuation - is at its second lowest ever level.
“The underlying causes of most of the additional deaths include respiratory and circulatory diseases (such as pneumonia, coronary heart disease and stroke), dementia, and Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other degenerative diseases.”
The latest figure is a 15 per cent increase on the previous year, which had the lowest number of winter deaths since recording began more than 60 years ago.
Of these, 1,940 were people over 85, and 1,240 were patients between 75 and 84 years old.
Labour’s public services spokesperson Jackie Baillie called for ministers to “get a grip” on the NHS.
She said: “Today’s statistics show a record of failing to plan for the long-term.
“The fact that winter deaths were the highest on record is very worrying. The concern is that this will be repeated again this coming winter.
“Despite the dedication of our NHS staff, the health service has struggled to meet key targets during the summer and autumn months.
“Winter is coming and people across the country are understandably worried about whether or not our NHS is prepared.
“It’s time for the SNP Government to get a grip of our NHS.”
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw added: “These figures send a strong, advance warning notice to the Scottish government as we head into winter.
“We need a clear signal of intention that the objective of ministers and Scotland’s NHS is to see last year’s depressing reality reversed.”
Campaigners including WWF Scotland and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) Scotland have called for politicians to improve energy efficiency to help vulnerable people warm their homes.
Theresa Fyffe, RCN Scotland director, said: “It’s indefensible that cold, hard-to-heat homes continue to leave the most vulnerable in our society at the mercy of cold weather each winter.”
Scotland’s chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood admitted the last winter had been “challenging” with many older patients presenting with multiple health problems but it had followed a year when winter deaths were particularly low.
She said: “While in many cases of winter mortality influenza will not be the main cause of death, it can aggravate underlying long-term conditions, which may have had a significant impact on the sick and elderly last winter.
“While the number of winter deaths is the total that occur throughout the community and are not specifically related to healthcare, it is crucial our NHS prepares thoroughly for the extra pressures winter clearly brings.
“This is why our winter guidance for health boards was issued two months earlier this year compared to previous years, and additional investment of £10.7 million will help ease pressure.”