UK cities postpone clean air zone plans due to Covid-19 crisis

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The introduction of pollution-busting clean air zones in cities has been postponed by the coronavirus crisis, as authorities combat the outbreak.

Clean air zones (CAZs), in which the dirtiest vehicles are deterred from urban centres by charges, were due to be implemented in Birmingham, Leeds and Bath this year, but have now been delayed at least to January 2021.

A zero-emissions zone planned for Oxford in December has also been postponed until summer 2021, while a consultation in Manchester on a clean air zone due this summer has been halted.

In London, the congestion charge, low emission zone and ultra low emission zones have all been suspended until further notice and a tightening of standards for the LEZ, due in October, has been pushed back by four months.

Q&A How vulnerable are people with asthma to Covid-19?
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Dr Andy Whittamore, a GP in Portsmouth and Asthma UK’s clinical lead, says that viruses are a trigger for asthma and asthma symptoms, and therefore it is fair to assume that coronavirus will act in the same way.

Health bodies around the world are listing asthma as a condition that might be considered high risk, but so far there is no evidence to suggest that having asthma increases the infection rate from the coronavirus. There is, though, some evidence that people who have asthma and catch the coronavirus are more likely to go on to have a more severe case of Covid-19. There is yet to be any data which shows how asthma impacts on the mortality rate from the coronavirus, but doctors are advising that people with the condition try to manage their asthma symptoms as best they can in case they catch the coronavirus.

Asthma is a condition of the airwaves, causing inflammation of the airwaves. It can lead to wheezing, coughing and a tight chest, and be triggered both by internal factors in the body, like levels of hormones, and external factors, like viruses, pollution and allergens. Colds and flu are considered a major trigger.

The authorities say the delays are to ease the travel of key workers such as NHS staff and essential deliveries, as well as to allow officials to focus on tackling Covid-19.

Levels of a key pollutant produced by vehicles, nitrogen dioxide, have been above legal limits in most urban areas for a decade, and the government has been defeated three times in court over the adequacy of its plans. Air pollution is estimated to cause about 40,000 early deaths a year in the UK.

The coronavirus lockdown has resulted in traffic plunging to 1955 levels and pollution cut by a third to a half in cities, but experts say this is likely to be short-lived. Early studies have shown that people with long-term exposure to air pollution have much higher death rates from Covid-19, most likely because dirty air increases respiratory and heart problems.

On 7 April, the government called on scientists to address “urgent short-term questions” related to changes in UK air quality linked to the coronavirus outbreak. In particular, it asked: “Based on what is already known about air pollutants as respiratory irritants or inflammatory agents, can any insights be gained into the impact of air quality on viral infection?”

An email from the government’s Joint Air Quality Unit to its stakeholders sent the same day said: “The national response to the current public health emergency has already impacted on a range of public functions at both local and national level and will continue to do so. In order to provide certainty to those affected by CAZs, we will work with local authorities to delay introducing CAZs until after the Covid-19 outbreak response.”

Katie Nield, a lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “The government has committed to keeping any delay to CAZs as short as possible. Given the harm to people’s health caused by air pollution, particularly to those most vulnerable, we think this is essential. In the meantime, it is important that preparatory work to draw up local air quality plans continues so that once the country starts moving again, people can look forward to breathing cleaner air.”

Zak Bond, at the British Lung Foundation, said: “We are all aware of the importance of good lung health so it’s crucial that, when we are able to, we get the CAZs up and running to protect everybody’s health, including the 12 million people in the UK with an existing respiratory condition and those who will be recovering from Covid-19.”

Jenny Bates, at Friends of the Earth, said: “The government should have required CAZs in its 2017 plan, but instead only asked councils to consider them along with other measures. They could have been already in place. As we come out of this terrible situation, we must think about what infrastructure we invest in: public transport as well as cycling and walking must be the priority, not more roadbuilding.”

A government spokeswoman said the delay to CAZs would help the authorities in Leeds, Birmingham and Bath focus on their response to coronavirus.

“Improving air quality remains a key priority for the UK, which is why we have also launched the call for evidence to ensure we can fully understand the impact that coronavirus is having on changes in air pollution emissions, concentrations and exposure,” she said.

Many other cities and towns, including Sheffield and Bristol, are considering CAZs, but councils in Coventry, Derby and Nottingham have rejected the idea.

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