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Empty street in lockdown

Health effects of air pollution COVID-19

A small silver lining: reflections on air pollution in a pandemic

18 March 2021
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4 min read

Programme Director Kate Langford reflects on the impact, learnings and opportunities for our health effects of air pollution programme created by COVID-19.

A different city

The first COVID-19 lockdown was economically and emotionally damaging for many. But a small silver lining emerged for many of us living in cities – for the first time we got to experience what cleaner air felt like. From around the world there were stories of air pollution drastically dropping as cities locked down to try to control the virus. Here in London, the streets emptied overnight and the city fell more silent than I have ever seen it before.

We wanted to capture as much insight from how people were experiencing this time as possible so we started working with Global Action Plan on a project called Build Back Cleaner Air. The research found that 72% of Londoners noticed cleaner air and that there was a 40-point swing towards air pollution being a greater concern. The research also suggested that people were changing their daily routines – with 53% of people saying they would cycle or walk more after lockdown.

As the lockdown looked like it might ease, we started talking to our partners at Southwark Council about how we could support walking, cycling and outdoor play when stay at home guidance was lifted – to look for ways to create healthier streets for play, active travel and disincentivise unnecessary car use. We wanted to ensure this work focussed on areas with poor health outcomes and high levels of deprivation – areas that might normally miss out on investments in their streets.

Local perceptions on air pollution during lockdown

36%

of London residents found it easier to breathe during the lockdown

72%

of London residents noticed an improvement in air quality in lockdown

53%

of people (in UK) said they would do more cycling or walking after lockdown

Health inequalities laid bare

In June, Public Health England published their second report on inequalities in COVID-19 deaths. Released in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and as Black Lives Matter protestors took to the streets across the country, this report was a stark reminder of the underlying social, economic and environmental factors that contribute to poor health outcomes. 

For me, it made the work we were doing on air quality even more urgent. We need to create healthier environments for everyone. To ensure those who are most vulnerable and those who do the least to contribute to air pollution, do not disproportionately bear the health impacts.

We also did a lot of reflecting on community representation – given the diversity of our boroughs why were so many of the grassroots groups interested in air pollution in more white, middle class areas? Were we doing enough to listen to and amplify the voices of the communities most impacted by air pollution? The answer was no.  

So we worked with The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) and set out to better understand the views of those in Lambeth and Southwark who are most impacted by air pollution but least heard. Their research is built upon principles of community leadership and co-ownership – and aims to really understand community views by recruiting people from those communities to lead the research. 

COVID-19 has sadly given us all a shared language to talk about these inequities – what we need now is to ensure that we also have a shared vision and actions to address them. 

Kate Langford Programme Director

Building back better

As we look forward to recovery from the pandemic we can’t underestimate how much the events of 2020 have shaped our outlook on the world. Re-reading blogs I wrote before COVID-19, I’m struck by how I failed to articulate that not only is air pollution a public health issue, but one which is inextricably linked to the other social and economic drivers of ill health that we aim to address at Impact on Urban Health. COVID-19 has sadly given us all a shared language to talk about these inequities – what we need now is to ensure that we also have a shared vision and actions to address them. 

The good news is there is a growing consensus on what action to improve air quality for all looks like. Last month  the Environment Farming and Rural Affairs select committee on Air Quality published the report, Air Quality and coronavirus: a glimpse of a different future or business as usual which we were delighted to have contributed evidence to. The report calls for more action, investment and joined up working across government, a specific health inequalities target within the environment bill and action to maintain momentum for active travel. 

And we’ll continue to test practical ways to reduce air pollution by working across the sector. But we’ll do this with an even more explicit focus on equitable solutions – solutions that benefit rather than burden those most impacted by air pollution. And we’ll try to ensure that this principle of equity is core not just to what we fund, but how we fund. 

We don’t know what the future holds as we come out of this (hopefully) final lockdown but it feels like we are on the cusp of real change in terms of air quality – that if we build on the energy and action from this year we can ensure everyone can breathe cleaner air.