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We Can’t Allow Air Pollution to Go Back to ‘Normal’

Poor air quality disproportionately impacts lower income communities, and coronavirus has shown that the resulting illnesses can be fatal – after it's over, we need to ensure everyone has a right to clean air.

With the pandemic has come much cleaner air. For some of us, it may now be the cleanest air we’ve breathed in our lifetimes. It’s not so much a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone,’ but rather we don’t know what we had ’til it’s back.

Cleaner air couldn’t come at a better time for many of us. 1 in 5 people in the UK live with a respiratory condition such as asthma or COPD. We know these conditions are worsened by poor air quality, and this in turn increases vulnerability to Covid-19.

Of course we already knew and understood well before Covid-19 how closely linked ill health is to socio-economic disadvantage. This is all the more the case when it comes to air pollution and the incidence of respiratory illness.

In general, it is the most disadvantaged who are forced to live next to the busy motorways, congested streets or under flight paths. With Covid-19 we have seen many of these same people forced back to work in high risk jobs as security guards, cleaners, care and health workers and as supermarket workers.

The Office of National Statistics this month revealed the mortality rate for Covid-19 was more than double in the poorest parts of England compared to the wealthiest. So when it comes to the fight for cleaner air it is not just an environmental or public health issue, it is a social justice issue. 

The evidence that links air quality and Covid deaths is growing. A recent Harvard study of 3,080 U.S. counties found that those who lived in counties with long-term pollution exposure of 15-20 years had significantly higher mortality rates. The European Public Health Alliance recently noted that there is a “strong correlation between air pollution and Covid-19.”

Prior to Covid-19, polluted air was already contributing to over 40,000 premature deaths each year. So, when government ministers say they want to return to normal – are thousands of premature deaths the normal they want to return to?

We know that before Covid-19 37 towns in the UK were exceeding the small particulate matter limits (2.5PM) set by the World Health Organisation and a further 10 towns the large particulate limit (10PM). There is extensive research around what the safe limits are for air pollution and what steps we need to take in order to reduce them. We now need to see the political will to commit to those steps. 

Earlier this year the government rejected Labour’s amendments that would have enshrined the WHO limits in the Environment Bill which is still before parliament.

On Tuesday in Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions I asked ministers to “sit down with us (Labour) and agree a form of wording which will require ministers to set targets on air quality to reach the WHO standards by 2030, and help save British lives?”

But even this modest attempt to seek consensus was rebuffed. The response I got was effectively that the government will be carrying on as normal.

As the Prime Minister urged people to use their cars to get to work, Sadiq Khan was busy creating one of the world’s largest car-free zones. Covid-19 has changed everything and we can’t let this government get away with making the poorest pay with their health for the consequences of their bad decisions.