Some academic papers have drawn a link between air pollution and coronavirus mortality rates © Mark Kerrison/Alamy

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The UK government faced a legal challenge on Monday to force a rethink of its air quality targets in light of emerging evidence about a link between pollution and Covid-19 mortality rates.

The legal move calls for a judicial review into the government’s “unlawful” refusal to re-examine its Clean Air Strategy following the emergence of growing reports and studies linking health outcomes in the coronavirus pandemic with historic levels of air pollution. The challenge is being brought by the Good Law Project working alongside campaign groups Mums for Lungs, Students for Global Health and the UK Youth Climate Coalition.

It points to “increasingly strong evidence . . . of the reasonable possibility of a causal link between air quality and Covid-19 incidence and mortality”, and states that the “secretary of state [is] legally obliged to consider adopting a more ambitious air quality policy than previously”. 

The most rigorous research on the subject to date is a report by academics at Harvard university that looked at fatalities from the virus and historic levels of dangerous particulate matter known as PM 2.5 across 3,000 US counties.

The researchers — who adjusted for variables including population size, availability of hospital beds, levels of obesity and smoking — found that small increases in particle pollution levels in the years before the pandemic were associated with an 8 per cent rise in death rates.

Another study in the Netherlands found that a small increase in exposure to pollution raised the death rate from Covid-19 by up to 21 per cent.

But not all evidence points to the same degree of correlation. A recent study by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that air pollution had a smaller effect than previous studies had indicated.

Drawn up in January 2019, the government’s clean air strategy aims to reduce the number of people exposed to pollutants, but the plan stopped short of outlining a target on particulates — one of the most damaging forms of pollution.

Campaigners also railed against the government failure to include legally binding goals on air quality and the fact that it ducked the question of how to meet existing targets, which have been repeatedly missed in the past. 

The letter sent to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Monday points to the government’s legal obligation to bring forward the review of its Clean Air Strategy from 2022 following the “precautionary principle”, a legal approach that emphasises taking a cautious line when extensive scientific knowledge is lacking.

“If you smell gas, you turn it off at the mains right away, you don’t sit on your hands and wait for the engineer to confirm that your house is definitely going to blow up,” said Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project. “When human life is at risk, we cannot afford to wait for absolute confirmation of this link.”

The Good Law Project first wrote to the government in mid-June calling for an urgent review of its strategy in light of growing evidence about the link between air quality and the incidence and severity of Covid-19. Defra refused the request, citing a lack of “compelling reasons for such a review at the present time”.

The latest move follows a long tradition of legal challenges to the government’s air pollution targets, many of which were brought forward by environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

As a result of one such case, the High Court ruled that the UK’s plans to improve air pollution were “unlawful” and that the government’s approach to pollution in 45 local authority areas in England where air quality was below legal limits was “seriously flawed”.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Improving air quality remains a top priority and we will continue to take robust and comprehensive action to improve air quality in the UK and minimise public health impacts. The World Health Organization has praised our Clean Air Strategy as 'an example for the rest of the world to follow'
 
“Further analysis is needed to properly and scientifically understand any link between air quality and coronavirus severity.” 

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