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Respiratory Health 2020

COVID-19 and clean air

Larissa Lockwood

Head of Health and Air Quality, Global Action Plan 

Clean Air Day 2020 has not gone ahead as planned. Due to COVID-19, it has been postponed to 8 October 2020.

This coronavirus-induced pause on what should have been Clean Air Day 2020 provides a moment to reflect. What would make this a clean air day? Would we like this, and every day, to be a clean air day?

It seems few of us want to go back to what was ‘normal’ before. The improvement in air quality is one of the aspects of the crisis that people want to hang on to.

Benefits of lockdown

Most of us have experienced some benefits during lockdown. Most notably: less noise pollution, the air feeling cleaner, more appreciation of the natural world and outdoor space, and the roads feeling safer for walking and cycling.

By coming together to build back cleaner air we can create positive change out of this COVID-19 tragedy and ensure that every day is a clean air day.

Many of these benefits stem from one source: fewer vehicles on the road. To help make clean air everyday, we urgently need to reconsider why and how we travel around.

During lockdown we have seen some dramatic reductions in the level of the air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, which primarily comes from road vehicles. Nitrogen dioxide levels have even halved in some central London locations.

Clean air and COVID-19

We know that health conditions that are caused or worsened by air pollution – such as asthma, heart disease and COPD – make a person more vulnerable to complications if they contract COVID-19.

If any person contracts COVID-19, which is principally a respiratory illness, they can become short of breath. It is therefore imperative that those recovering from and managing respiratory illnesses have access to clean air.

As lockdown eases, we must avoid a sudden surge in air pollution exposing the UK public – and those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 – to dirty air. We must build back cleaner air by keeping levels of traffic low.

Change in attitudes since COVID-19

We know that nearly half of the population would like to walk more when lockdown is lifted, almost a quarter would like to cycle more and over a quarter of people want to drive less.

It seems that the place many of us want to drive to less is the workplace: 87% of those who are homeworking under lockdown want to continue working from home to some extent, with this figure rising to 91% among people with asthma.

We call on business to confirm that all those who are able to work from home can consider it as an option for the long term.

And for those who do have to travel to work, let’s lose the stressful commute and instead encourage active travel, to promote health, reduce air pollution and protect those most vulnerable to coronavirus.

We all have a role to play in creating this clean air future. We need local and national government to create safer walking and cycling infrastructure, schools to implement school streets[1], businesses to encourage virtual working, and all of us to leave the car at home more often.

Research by Opinium tells us that 72% of people think that clean air is even more important now because COVID-19 can affect people’s lungs.

By coming together to build back cleaner air we can create positive change out of this COVID-19 tragedy and ensure that every day is a clean air day.

[1] School streets are temporary traffic restrictions at school drop-off and pick-up times

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