Covid-19 Lockdown: Air Quality

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons on 19th May 2020.

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Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

What assessment he has made of the effect on air quality of the reduction in the use of motor vehicles during the covid-19 lockdown.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is an absolute pleasure to be taking part today, Mr Speaker, although nothing really makes up for being there in person with you.

DEFRA’s roadside air quality monitoring stations continuously monitor air quality. Between 23 March and 5 May, nitrogen dioxide concentrations were, on average, 46% lower than this time last year, with reductions ranging from 9% to 65% at individual locations. That is largely due to the substantial reduction in traffic levels, although other factors such as weather may also have had some impact. Interestingly, concentrations of other air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, have not shown similar trends.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the Minister for her answer. That is some small good news, I guess, out of lockdown. In Manchester’s sister city of Wuhan in China, private car use nearly doubled when the lockdown ended, with the obvious effects on air quality. Is the Minister concerned that the Prime Minister’s statement of 10 May encouraged the use of cars?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It has been made very clear in all the guidance and by the Prime Minister that, first and foremost, if people can work from home, they should do so. Those who have to go to work were advised to go by car, and also to cycle and walk. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question, because he strikes a good note. He will know that the uptake of cycling has surged during this time, especially where businesses are providing a scheme so that their employees can have bikes. He will also know that the Prime Minister has announced that we are phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035—earlier, if possible. Lessons will be learnt. The Air Quality Expert Group has been conducting a big survey, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in the results when they are revealed.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is my first time appearing opposite the Minister; hopefully we will have many fruitful discussions.

There is growing evidence that deaths due to covid are higher in areas of bad air quality, but lockdown means that right now we are breathing the cleanest air that we have had in generations. We need to do all we can to ensure that many of the survivors of covid, who will have weakened lungs, are protected. Air pollution currently kills 40,000 people each year, with 40 of our towns breaking the World Health Organisation limit. The Government and the Minister dismissed putting targets in the Environment Bill, but surely covid has changed all that. Will the Minister sit down with us and agree a form of wording that will require Ministers to set targets on air quality in order to reach the WHO standard by 2030 and help save British lives?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As the hon. Gentleman alludes to, the Environment Bill delivers key parts of the clean air strategy and introduces a duty to set an ambitious, legally binding target on PM concentrations of pollutants of greatest harm. I know that he will also be interested in the independent Air Quality Expert Group, which has been analysing the situation so that we can learn lessons from coronavirus, and from air quality and its potential impact on human lives. Air quality is a serious issue for human health.