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Covid-19 Death and Infection Rate: Air Quality

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

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and the rate of (a) death and (b) infection from covid-19.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the link between air quality and the exacerbation of covid-19 symptoms.

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

DEFRA has had extensive discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and health, recently considering the specific relationship between covid-19 deaths and air quality. DEFRA is actively working with Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics to assess further the relationship for the UK, and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser is working with relevant experts in health, disease and air quality to assess the relationship between air quality and the risk of infection, based on the emerging scientific research into covid-19.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Research from Harvard University suggests that a change of 1 microgram per cubic metre of PM2.5 leads to a 15% reduction in covid deaths, and Queen Mary University of London has shown that short-term pollution gives rise to more infection. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and the academics from Harvard and Queen Mary on 29 May at the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution to discuss this, with a view to introducing World Health Organisation air quality standards into the Environment Bill?

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

I know that the hon. Gentleman works very hard in this area. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Public Health England and the ONS are working together to assess whether there is evidence of association between exposure to particulates—the PM2.5 that he refers to—and covid-19 mortality in the UK. The clean air strategy sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of Government to improve air quality for everyone, and it includes measures to reduce key sources that contribute to fine particulate matter. Because of the lockdown, I think joining the APPG would be difficult, but I would be very interested to have some feedback from that meeting.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Finance Committee (Commons), Chair, Finance Committee (Commons)

Tens of thousands of lives cut short every year—that was the UK’s air quality health emergency long before we had even heard of coronavirus. As my hon. Friend Geraint Davies said, we now know that there is a strong correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and covid-19 deaths, so clean air zones are needed more than ever. However, Nottingham’s taxi drivers tell me they are worried about their ability to invest in new clean electric vehicles as a result of lost income, and other businesses face similar pressures. As we come out of lockdown, how will the Government support local councils and small businesses to go even faster to protect the public from toxic air?

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

As the hon. Lady will know, we have supported Nottingham City Council to tackle its nitrogen dioxide exceedance through a £1 million investment to support the uptake of e-taxis and £1.7 million to retrofit 171 buses, which means that there is not a need for a clean air zone. Nottingham is also one of the Go Ultra Low cities. My officials will be working closely with and will be very interested to speak to Nottingham City Council to see how the impacts of coronavirus are affecting its plans. They are doing that with all local authorities across the country, just to keep a weather eye on how coronavirus will impact our new clean air zones and our drive to reduce air pollution, which of course is all important.