Car use returned to 100% of pre-lockdown levels on Sunday prompting air pollution fears

Car use returned to 100% of pre-lockdown levels last Sunday, prompting a warning from the UK’s leading respiratory charities that private vehicle use looks set to rise to much higher than before the pandemic.

On Sunday 3 August, car use had returned to the same level as on Sunday 2 February.While the rolling average for the seven days up until 4 August showed car use was back to 90% of pre-lockdown levels, according to new data just released by the Department for Transport.1

Road traffic, which includes all motor vehicles, reached 103% of pre-lockdown levels last Sunday.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have been monitoring road traffic levels since the lockdown began and are concerned that continued uncertainty over the safety of public transport will lead to people choosing to drive as day to day life returns, causing air pollution to soar. 

Air pollution contributes to tens of thousands of early deaths every year and can be particularly dangerous for people with diagnosed lung conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation are urging the government to use the upcoming Environment Bill to set a strong new legal target for fine particulate matter, which is the type of air pollution most harmful to people’s health, in accordance with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline level.

The charities are also calling for the implementation of charging Clean Air Zones, which have been delayed until 2021 at the earliest, in the most polluted towns and cities.

Alongside a shift to walking and cycling, it is crucial that government and transport operators ensure public transport is back up and running safely at high capacity, with clear rules on social distancing and mask wearing, as soon as possible.

Sarah MacFadyen, Head of Policy at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It is deeply concerning that in August, when many people haven’t yet returned to their normal pace of life, we’re already back up to the same level of road traffic on Sunday as we were in February.

“We all need to protect our lungs in the long term. By committing to meeting WHO limits on particulate matter limits in every part of the UK, the government can ensure people recovering from COVID-19 and the 12 million people affected by a lung condition have clean air to breathe.

“We have seen glimpses of what clean air could feel like as a result of lockdown – it is time this became normality.”

A new YouGov survey commissioned by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that high levels of air pollution can impact the health of people with a lung condition.

More than 60% of people surveyed reported feeling more breathless on high air pollution days, while 7% reported having to seek emergency care after being exposed to air pollution2.

Previous research by the charity carried out in May found that one in six people with a lung condition reported that lockdown had improved their symptoms, likely due to the fall in air pollution levels3.

Dave Lawson, 37, has bronchiectasis and says high levels of air pollution triggers his condition.

“When I’m exposed to high levels of pollution, it feels like there’s a belt tightening around my chest.

 “I felt healthier at the beginning of lockdown because there were fewer cars on the road near where I live in the outskirts of north Manchester and the air didn’t feel as oppressive. But in the past few weeks as the traffic has returned, the air has become thick with pollution and my breathing has become heavier again.”

Alison Cook, Chair of the Taskforce for Lung Health, said, “For too long, people have continued to suffer the consequences of air pollution, which can harm healthy lungs and aggravate the symptoms of those living with lung conditions. The biggest cause of dangerous air pollution in our towns and cities is from road transport, so the rapidly increasing numbers of cars on our roads is very worrying.

“Alongside Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, the Taskforce for Lung Health is calling on the government to use the opportunity the Environment Bill presents to set out new clean air laws which, at the very minimum, are in line with the World Health Organisation limits”. 

 Notes to Editor

  1. The Department of Transport data provided is indexed to the first week of February and the comparison is to the same day of the week, i.e., 100 would mean that traffic is the same as the equivalent day in the first week of February

  1. Research conducted online by YouGov between 18 May and 12 June. Total sample size was 1,069 adults with lung conditions (COPD, bronchiectasis, lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, interstitial lung disease) and family/carers of people with these conditions. The figures have been weighted and are representative of those with each lung condition.
  2. Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation ran an online survey from 6 May-14 May on how people with lung conditions are coping with coronavirus and the lockdown. The survey gained 14,312 responses