Air Quality and coronavirus: a glimpse of a different future or business as usual Contents
Cleaner air and clearer skies were one of the few positives that many people experienced following the first covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. However, as the pandemic progressed evidence also began to emerge that air pollution might be playing a role in people’s susceptibility to, and increased mortality from, covid-19. Air pollution is the largest environmental risk to UK public health and is linked to as many as 64,000 early deaths a year. It is an issue that our predecessor Committees returned to several times, concluding the Government had failed to address the scale of the challenge. We have revisited air quality in light of the pandemic and our key findings are:
- Lockdown restrictions from March 2020 led to less traffic and changing travel patterns and many people experienced better air quality. But by September 2020, most towns and cities saw a return to pre-lockdown levels of air pollution. The temporary improvement in air quality does not mask the need for faster progress on air pollution.
- Although there is a link between poor air quality and covid-19 mortality and morbidity; a strong and established case already existed for taking action to reduce health inequalities from air pollution, and the Government’s Clean Air Strategy should be amended to include measures to reduce these long-term health inequalities. The Environment Bill should also be amended to include a health inequalities target; require the Secretary of State to take account of human health considerations when setting or reviewing air quality targets; and include a duty on all government departments and local government to work together to deliver these targets.
- The Environment Bill does not provide the robust legal framework needed given the scale and urgency of the challenge. It should be amended to include a specific target to reduce the annual mean concentration of PM2.5 to under 10μg/m3 by 2030, in line with World Health Organisation-guidelines. The Secretary of State should also use his discretionary powers in the Bill to set additional long-term air quality targets for the other key pollutants that harm human health.
- The Clean Air Strategy relies too much on local authorities, delegating most responsibility for delivering air quality improvements to them without providing sufficient competencies and resources to deliver. The duties related to local “air quality partners” in the Environment Bill should apply to all levels of government and public bodies; and the Government should commit to a long-term funding structure for local authorities to underpin their new duties in the Bill.
- Reducing the use of public transport was necessary during the pandemic, but action is needed to prevent a permanent shift in public attitudes towards it as well as to maintain momentum in increasing active travel. As restrictions are lifted, the Government should work with local authorities and providers to reassure the public that public transport is safe and to promote its use. The Government should also match its rhetoric on active travel with sufficient funding.