My Lords, the palpable improvement in air quality over the past three months has been the silver lining in the Covid cloud. In London, there has been an average fall in nitrogen dioxide levels of 26%, with even greater reductions in some of the capital’s traffic hotspots. Across the UK, some cities have seen reductions of up to 60% compared with the same period last year.
We will all benefit from this given the well-evidenced connection between air pollution and physical, as well as mental, health, but a study from Harvard has uncovered important links between air quality and Covid-19. It found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter—the main source of which is vehicle emissions—leads to an 8% increase in the Covid-19 death rate. This is of particular relevance as we think about not just a cleaner economy post Covid but a fairer one.
Air pollution inequalities are mainly an urban problem, with research finding higher levels of pollution in the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods and in areas with a population more than 20% non-white. This means that ethnically diverse communities are, in general, exposed to higher levels of air pollution, increasing their already greater susceptibility to Covid-19. It is therefore surprising that this aspect of risk was not addressed in the recent Public Health England report on the disproportionate impact of the disease on our black, Asian and minority ethnic populations.
Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have plans to design differentiated recovery strategies for those areas more heavily affected by poor air? Cleaning up these pollution hotspots would not just maintain the unanticipated gains in air quality; it would help to tackle some of the UK’s most stubborn and persistent health inequalities. Levelling up is a laudable aim and one I support, but it cannot just mean rebalancing between north and south, urban and rural. It must also mean addressing the inequalities rife within our cities.