Millions of people living in cold and damp homes could become more vulnerable to coronavirus this winter due to their poor quality housing, a report warns.

Excess cold and damp conditions have been shown to cause and worsen chronic health problems linked to Covid-19, including respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

And those most at risk of Covid-19 – including people who are older, have pre-existing conditions or are from a Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority background – are more likely to be living in homes that do not meet the national standard to be considered in decent condition.

The report, by the Centre for Ageing Better and the King’s Fund, says the Government must act to enable immediate improvements to substandard homes.

In the longer term, local services must work together to reduce health and housing inequalities.

The report says: “Poor quality housing has already worsened the outcomes of the pandemic for some groups.

“The implications have been two-fold, in both increased viral transmission and the consequences, both immediate and future, on health and wellbeing from spending lockdown in non-decent conditions.

“Considering this apparent multiplier effect, it is essential that housing conditions are improved for both current and future homes to break the cycle of inequality and to ensure that future risks are mitigated against.”

According to the report, one in five homes in England, around 4.3 million, do not meet the national standard – which could risk the health and wellbeing of an estimated 10 million inhabitants.

One of the most common reasons for non-decency in homes is excess damp and cold – thought to be behind around a fifth of excess deaths over a winter period.

However, financial pressures linked to the pandemic may make it harder for homeowners to make necessary adaptations, the report suggests.

And people could struggle to keep poorly insulated homes warm if hit with increased fuel bills during a winter lockdown.

Spending extended periods exposed to cold can exacerbate or induce respiratory and cardiovascular conditions that increase the risk of contracting Covid-19, and its severity.

Overcrowding is also a factor that can lead to an increased risk of viral transmission, and is more common among ethnic minority households.

Holly Holder, senior evidence manager at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “Spending long periods of time in a cold, damp and unsafe home is bad for people’s health and could increase the risk of serious consequences if someone were to contract Covid-19.

“The government urgently needs to reach out to these at-risk groups so any immediate interventions can be made to make homes warmer, free of damp and safer.”

Clair Thorstensen-Woll, research assistant at the King’s Fund, added:  “We have not all experienced lockdown equally. Many vulnerable people have spent more time in homes that are unsuitable, cramped or physically unsafe; environments which place residents at higher risk of worse outcomes from Covid-19.

“The pandemic has shone a light on the mounting evidence that poor housing has a detrimental impact on people’s health. Tackling the problem will require better quality housing, improvements to the neighbourhoods around people’s homes and greater alignment of the housing, health and care sectors.”

A spokesman from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said: “We are committed to protecting the public and are working hard to improve the quality of housing across the country.

“We have taken action to provide councils with powers to deal with dangerous damp in privately rented homes and have empowered social and private renters with the rights necessary to take their landlords to court should they fail to provide decent living conditions.

“We have also introduced Green Homes Grants worth up to £10,000 to help cover energy efficiency improvements, meaning hundreds of thousands of homes could be warmer and safer this winter.

“Additionally we will soon publish the Social Housing White Paper, which will set out further measures to empower tenants and boost the quality of social housing.”