Manchester becomes latest UK city to delay clean air zone

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The creation of the biggest clean air zone in the UK to tackle illegal levels of air pollution is being delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Greater Manchester became the latest city to announce it was putting off the implementation of a clean air zone (CAZ), raising concerns that a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis was being put on hold.

The planned CAZ covers 10 local authority areas and was to be the biggest in the country. HGVs, LGVs, buses and taxis would be charged to enter the zone if they did not meet nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions standards. Private cars would not be charged.

Andrew Western, the leader of Trafford council, said on Wednesday the CAZ would be delayed until 2022, a year later than planned, because of the difficulty in carrying out widespread consultation while ensuring physical distancing.

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 airways, causing inflammation. 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.

He said the authority was asking the government for GBP166m, including GBP98m for a clean commercial vehicle fund and GBP10m to help sole traders most affected by the shift to cleaner vehicles. Only GBP41m had so far been received.

Western said the lockdown had resulted in large falls in NO2 in Greater Manchester and nationally. “That’s something we want to ensure can become a permanent feature.”

He said a delay should not affect the ability of Greater Manchester to comply with legal air pollution limits.

Leeds, Birmingham and Bath have also said they would delay the introduction of clean air zones. Birmingham and Bath have delayed until 2021 at the earliest, while Leeds said its measures to cut illegal levels of NO2 from traffic, due to start in September, would be put back “until further notice”. Oxford is delaying its zero emission zone.

Birmingham city council asked the government’s joint air quality unit to delay the launch of the zone until at least the end of the calendar year, to be kept under review.

Kate Nield, a clean air lawyer for ClientEarth, which successfully took the government to court over its failure to tackle illegal air pollution levels, said she was alarmed by the delay announced by Greater Manchester.

“Local leaders have provided no explanation as to why the current circumstances have triggered a delay of at least another year and a half before any meaningful action to tackle air pollution commences,” she said.

“Greater Manchester has already missed too many government-imposed deadlines. It’s not right that people are having to wait so long for action to protect their health from toxic air.

“The law makes it clear: plans to tackle illegal pollution in the shortest possible time must be put in place as soon as can be. This seems especially important now that our cities and towns are recovering from a virus that affects people’s respiratory health.”

The UK courts have ordered the government to bring air pollution levels down to legal limits in the shortest possible time.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the cities had made their decisions to delay after discussions with government.

Other cities where clean air zones are planned to bring air pollution to within legal limits are Southampton, Derby – which is opting for traffic management, not charging – and Bristol.

Bristol has proposed the most radical policy, voting to totally ban all privately owned diesel vehicles from the city centre during the day. The scheme is due to start in 2021.

In London, Sadiq Khan has already introduced an ultra-low emissions zone in the city centre, which is due to be expanded to the North and South Circular roads in 2021.

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