Pollution levels drop across London due to coronavirus home working

Air pollution levels drop across London as Britons stay at home and coronavirus lockdowns cut dangerous emissions around the globe

  • London nitrogen dioxide levels dropped by a third between Sunday and Monday 
  • Defra says air pollution levels for the whole country are low and should stay low
  • This comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urges people to avoid travelling
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Air pollution in London has dropped by almost a third as people working from home or going into self isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Readings for nitrogen dioxide – a harmful greenhouse gas – across London were lower on Sunday than on Monday for the first time. 

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported that air pollution levels were ‘low’ across the country today and don’t expect that to change.

The impact of lockdowns in places like Italy and China have seen an even more dramatic drop in dangerous emissions from industry, air travel and cars. 

On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay home and avoid all but essential travel and contact with other people.

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A photograph of the M1 Motorway taken at 9:33am near Junction 44, the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on people to stay away from pubs, clubs and theatres, work from home if possible and avoid all non-essential contacts and travel

This map shows air pollution levels in the UK on Tuesday – the lighter green areas are ‘very low’ air pollution and darker green is ‘low’

The PM warned that the coronavirus was now in a phase of rapid spread across the UK, with London seeing a particular surge. 

He said everyone should avoid contact that is not absolutely necessary – with restaurants, bars and cinemas and travel off limits, and an end to large gatherings. 

Admitting that the squeeze could last 12 weeks or even longer, Mr Johnson acknowledged he was ‘asking a lot’.

‘It’s probably too early for any firm conclusions for the UK as pollution levels will vary day by day,’ said Professor Ian Colbeck, of the University of Essex.

He said with reduced traffic pollution would also lead to a reduction in air pollution as more people stay home.

In London nitrogen dioxide levels fell by a third between Sunday and Monday and fine particulate pollution dropped by a half to ‘very low’ levels. 

Road side air quality, not the average for the location but a – worst case scenario reading – taken by the side of a road, had an even bigger drop.

So far there have been 1,543 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK with 55 dead

Measurements range from zero as very low to over 100 showing very high levels of pollution in any specific area.

According to EU air quality monitoring website AirQualityNow.eu – London saw a drop from 96 on Sunday to just 20 on Monday. The figure for Monday would normally be higher than the weekend rate. 

It could continue in the future if behaviours change as a result of experiences during the forced isolation. 

‘It’s quite possible that once things revert back to pre-virus conditions that companies and their staff may have seen the benefits of working from home and so the actual number of commuters may reduce,’ said Colbeck. 

It’s not just the UK showing a drop in air pollution – China and Italy have seen a dramatic change – according to satellite data from the European Space Agency.

Dramatic footage from the ESA Copernicus satellite reveals a ‘notable drop’ in air pollution over Italy after the coronavirus lockdown. 

‘Based economic growth forecasts the impact of the coronavirus could significantly reduce global CO2 emissions,’ said Colbeck.

‘Figures from China suggest a 25% reduction in energy use and emissions. Air travel emissions are a significant contributor to climate change (2.6% of global CO2 emissions) so expect this figure to drop as more and more flights are cancelled.’ 

ESA shared an animation that showed a significant change in the pollution levels over Italy between January and March, particularly over Po Valley in the north.

In an attempt to reduce the spread of the deadly disease, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a lockdown of the entire country.

ESA’s Claus Zehner, Sentinel-5P mission manager, said, ‘The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident.

‘Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.’

This came after the country closed bars, pubs, restaurants and other venues in a bid to stop people spreading the virus – resulting in a reduction in traffic, air and industrial pollution.

In the UK Boris Johnson hasn’t gone as far as enforcing closures or a lockdown but a number of companies have taken the decision to shut.

A sparsely-filled carriage on an Underground train in west London the day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on people to stay away from pubs, clubs and theatres, work from home if possible

Commuters faced with nearly empty carriages on trains during rush hour journey to Manchester Oxford Road/Piccadilly stations this morning

‘Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and stop all non-essential travel,’ the PM said at a press conference on Monday.

‘We need people to start working from home where they possible can. You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.’

In a special plea to the capital, Mr Johnson said people there were at the highest risk. ‘It looks as though London is now a few weeks ahead… it’s important that Londoners now pay special attention to what we are saying about avoiding all non-essential contact.’ 

In China factories have been closed, streets cleared and flights cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

This lockdown saw the number of ‘good quality air days’ in the country increase by 21.5 per cent in February 2020 compared to the same month in 2019. This is according to the China Ministry of Ecology and Environment. 

‘This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,’ says Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told CNN. 

‘I am not surprised because many cities nationwide have taken measures to minimize the spread of the virus.’ 

It also isn’t just nitrogen dioxide levels dropping. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air CO2 emissions were down by nearly 25 per cent because of coronavirus control measures.

‘As a measure that took place effectively overnight, this is more dramatic than anything else that I’ve seen in terms of the impact on emissions,’ Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA told CNN.

Li said there was a risk things could get significantly worse for the environment when things return to normal. 

The researcher said countries could attempt to focus heavily on restarting their economies and making up for lost ground during the shutdown. 

‘The reduction in air pollution has been very clear so if the pollution does come back, because of stimulus measures, because of heavy industry going into overdrive to make up for lost time, there could be a counter reaction.’ 

A Defra spokesperson said air pollution has a serious impact on communities around the UK and so they are ‘taking urgent action to improve air quality’. 

‘We are working hard to reduce transport emissions and are already investing £3.5 billion to clean up our air,’ the spokesperson said. 

‘Our Environment Bill will also improve air quality and people’s health by fighting air pollution – making it easier for local authorities to tackle key sources of air pollution and setting a duty to set legally-binding air quality targets.’

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?

What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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