Turning blue lights green

Polly Billington, director of UK100, a cities network that campaigns on environmental issues, argues that the NHS needs a national strategy for air pollution.

Toxic air pollution isn’t just an environmental catastrophe, it’s a public health crisis. Research that UK100 published in February showed that across England, 18 million NHS patients (nearly one in three) are registered at GP surgeries that breach WHO guidelines for PM2.5 pollution.

According to a joint report by two royal colleges, exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to asthma, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer, with emerging evidence showing impacts on low birth weight, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

This isn’t just an issue in London and the big cities: GP surgeries in Barrow in Furness, Lowestoft, Penzance, Ipswich, and Portsmouth have the worst recorded levels. It’s a problem across the country. The adverse impact on public health caused by pollution costs the UK economy more than £20bn a year, or just under 16% of the current annual NHS budget.

Every week, 700 people die needlessly from exposure to toxic fumes – more than diabetes and road deaths combined. While the NHS has a National Diabetes Prevention Programme, government ministers and NHS leaders need to match that ambition with a similar strategy to tackle deaths from air pollution.

It was really positive to see the health secretary Matt Hancock and the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens at the LoveCleanAir summit we organised with the mayor of London on 14 February.

Sitting alongside the environment secretary Michael Gove, the summit brought together leaders of cities and councils across the country to sign up to the world’s most ambitious clean air plans. It includes adopting WHO pollution targets as legally binding, a new fully-independent watchdog to hold government to account, and new resources to provide clean transport networks and local air standards. Ministers now need to enshrine these in legislation.

One specific request is for a £1.5bn national vehicle scrappage scheme to enable people and small businesses to get rid of their older polluting cars and vans and get an ultra-low emissions vehicle or switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

There is a big responsibility for the NHS specifically, which accounts for a staggering 10 billion journeys each year – around 3.5% of all road travel – as staff and patients travel to work and appointments and medical supplies are delivered.

The NHS workforce is already making changes. Through changes in the long-term plan and better use of technology, millions of outpatient appointments and millions of patient journeys could be avoided.

And journeys which are essential, like ambulance trips, should be done in ultra-low emissions vehicles – turning blue lights green. While NHS England has a target of at least 90% of vehicles using ultra-low emission engines by 2024, there is a stumbling block. Vehicle manufacturers need to step up to the plate with inventive and cost effective solutions when the tender to upgrade the ambulance fleet comes later this year. Innovation is needed because green technology is not yet advanced enough to power the heavy vehicles with all the kit they carry.

Over the next 12 months, we’ll be launching a campaign with hospitals, NHS trusts, GPs, nurses and all NHS staff to demand tough new air pollution laws. We can all play our part in tackling toxic fumes by changing the way we work and travel. At our summit, the ministers promised to take the message to the treasury for additional resources. But we need your support to keep up the pressure on councils and Government, so if you want to get involved do contact us.


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