Satellite images have already shown dramatic reductions in concentrations of the pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in China and northern Italy, following strict public health measures which have caused a sharp reduction in travel.
In the UK, which announced a nationwide lockdown on Monday, air quality has already started to improve after the British public were told to avoid nonessential travel and to work from home where possible last week.
Air pollution is largely caused by traffic in cities and causes an estimated 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year.
It is linked to health problems such as strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory disease, as well as stunting the growth of children’s lungs.
Data from the London Air Quality Network, run by King’s College London, has shown drops in both NO2 and fine particles known as PM2.5 compared to average levels, with notable decreases at roadsides.
Restrictions on social life in the UK which were announced by Boris Johnson, the prime minister, on Monday are expected to be in place for at least three weeks, but will be kept under constant review.
The government has said people should only leave their home for essential activities, such as shopping for basic necessities or dealing with medical needs.
“Air quality has started to improve in many UK cities, mirroring what has been seen in other countries that have restricted travel and levels of outdoor activity,” Professor Alastair Lewis, from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York, said.
“This is primarily a consequence of lower traffic volumes, and some of the most clear reductions have been in nitrogen dioxide, which comes primarily from vehicle exhaust.”
Mr Lewis also noted that any improvement in air quality could deliver health benefits, although it was unclear if this would affect the impact of Covid-19, which is a respiratory disease.
Professor William Collins, professor of meteorology at the University of Reading, said it was “too early to say” whether these improvements would offset the increased death rate from the coronavirus.
“Sadly we may not see reductions in air pollution translated into direct drops in mortality,” Professor Anna Hansell, professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Leicester, said.
Ms Hansell added that this was because there would be an increase in deaths due to Covid-19, as well as financial hardship and stress potentially increasing death rates and the risk of chronic diseases.
Earlier this month, researchers suggested up to 100,000 premature deaths in Wuhan, China, could be avoided if the country’s economic slowdown continued over the next year.
Wuhan, which is the city where Covid-19 was first identified, came to a halt in January, with local businesses shut, factories closed and social movement restricted.
The Centre for International Climate Research in Oslo, Norway, said the drop in air pollution caused by the measures could lead to a reduction in premature deaths between 54,000 and 109,000 people if continued.
Ms Hansell also said research was needed to see if pollution levels had contributed to the impact of coronavirus in Wuhan and northern Italy, either directly affecting infection rates or affecting severity by causing more heart and lung disease, which put people at greater risk of severe Covid-19 disease.
Additional reporting by PA
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