Appeal to PM from doctors over air pollution

Letter sent by 200 doctors and hospital staff coincides with Clean Air Day, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

London smog (credit Mario La Pergola via Unsplash)
London smog (credit Mario La Pergola via Unsplash)

A group of more than 200 doctors and hospital staff from across the UK have written to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to take action on air pollution.

The letter, written to mark Clean Air Day on Thursday (15th), follows a similar letter from some 36 scientists sent to Downing Street last week.

It reads: “The scientists have given us disturbing evidence, but we as health care providers are left on the front line with the heartbreaking impacts [of toxic air].

“We deal with children struggling to breathe, parents grieving lost babies, adults suffering from cancer, heart attacks, stroke and dementia. All made more common by the toxic air we breathe.”

The letter was organised by the campaign group Ride for their Lives, and includes among its signatories some 209 GPs, nurses, paediatricians, radiologists, psychotherapists and other hospital staff.

It comes as London mayor Sadiq Khan’s planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – and a judicial review challenging its legality – draws closer.

The healthcare workers say in their appeal to Sunak that interventions like the Ulez and similar schemes across the country are needed to protect their patients’ health.

“Sadly there are very few effective actions that our patients can take to reduce their personal exposure [to toxic air],” the letter reads.

“Much more powerful are the interventions that only coordinated action from national, regional and local governments can achieve.

“These include providing environments where our patients can travel safely on foot and by bike, ultra low emission and clean air zones as in London, Newcastle and other cities, local traffic control solutions such as school streets, and effective regulation of wood burning in urban areas.

“The science shows that this clears the air, reduces hospitalisation and makes our frontline work easier.

“It is deeply worrying that some politicians have chosen to deny the science and promote delay and disinformation. We call on you to set an example to your peers.”

One of its authors, paediatric intensivist Dr Mark Hayden, said of the letter: “Really it was a reaction to reading the scientists’ letter, and obviously the scientists felt under attack from various places, which I think I can understand, knowing the landscape in discussing things like Ulez and other air quality topics.

“We were really just putting the headline diseases that people know about in the letter, to keep it simple and short.

“But the thing that surprises me is that every day there’s a new paper that comes out that shows that [when there is] a spike in PM2.5 [particulate matter] or NO2 [nitrogen dioxide], or a forest fire, there are acute health impacts on conditions that I treat.”

He said he hopes Sunak will listen to the letter’s warnings.

“I don’t know how much time he has to read letters from people like us, but I hope that he does, because he’s talked previously about his children, and wanting a better future for them,” he said.

“We’d like the politicians to listen to the evidence that the scientists have provided and listen to us as a very diverse group of healthcare providers.

“That’s one thing we tried to do with our letter. The scientists’ letter was obviously a bunch of very eminent professors and doctors, but we wanted this to come much more from a sort of grassroots healthcare providers of all different types.”

The topic of Ulez was raised at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, where Sunak said Khan was “imposing the Ulez charge against the overwhelming views of residents and businesses” and that it was a “plan to raise costs on working families”.

The zone, which will expand to cover the whole of London on 29th August, requires non-compliant vehicles to pay a daily charge of £12.50 in order to be driven within it. Khan has said the measure is necessary to enable five million Londoners to breathe cleaner air, and to save lives.

Responding to the letter, a spokeswoman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “While local authorities have a responsibility to tackle air quality in their areas, the government has delivered significant improvements in air quality at a national level since 2010, with emissions of fine particulate matter and nitrogen oxides down by 10% and 45% respectively – but we recognise there is more to do.

“Our environmental improvement plan sets out how we will drive down emissions from domestic burning, agriculture, transport and industry, while the air quality strategy sets out our expectations of local councils to improve air quality for their residents.

“Together, these measures will support progress towards our legally binding targets and deliver cleaner air for all.”