Opinion: It would be disastrous for our planet if people switch to cars

MP Catherine West does not want pollution levels rising after lockdown.

MP Catherine West does not want pollution levels rising after lockdown. - Credit: Chris McAndrew (Creative Commons

The question of how we come out of lockdown is rightly the subject of much debate.

With the UK reporting one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls and with clear failings in the government’s tracking, testing and isolating strategy, people need to know it’s safe before they go back to work, see loved ones or send children to school. That has to be led by medical and scientific advice and the National Education Union is right to set five tests before schools can safely reopen to more pupils.

At the same time, let’s also debate the question of what kind of society we want to emerge from this painful few months.

Throughout this pandemic we have seen the strength and bravery of the key workers who have kept this country going. Yet even as ministers head to their doorsteps to clap carers, off-the-record Treasury briefings have talked of public sector pay freezes. That cannot be the way forward. Many of the difficulties our public services have faced, including the lack of vital PPE, have been caused by ten years of chronic underfunding. Never again must we go back to a society where we don’t invest in our public services, where half of our carers are paid less than the real living wage and where NHS workers top the list of those applying for payday loans to make ends meet.

Nor can we return to toxic air and traffic-choked streets. I love to cycle and like many have enjoyed the quieter streets as traffic levels have dramatically reduced and the air we breathe has become less polluted. Harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels at some of London’s busiest roads is down by around a half. In normal times most Haringey residents go to work on public transport, but our buses and tubes can’t safely cope with everyone piling back on when lockdown ends. Yet it would be disastrous for our planet if people switch to cars. Instead, let’s embrace this opportunity to transform our town centres and local environment into pedestrian friendly spaces, widening pavements where we can, installing new cycle lanes and networks, and creating “low traffic neighbourhoods” so that from this dark period comes the light of a greener, healthier city. We must be ambitious, and we must act quickly.

Thirdly, we must not underplay the impact this pandemic has had on mental as well as physical health. From the health and social care workers who’ve seen their mental health decline (50 per cent of those surveyed by YouGov) to the children who’ve struggled without seeing friends, teachers, grandparents. Research from Young Minds suggests 82pc of young people with a history of mental health problems have seen their mental health deteriorate since lockdown, yet too many are struggling to access even the support they had previously. People who have experienced abuse, domestic violence or bereavement will be particularly at risk. As a patron of Haringey Mind and someone who has long backed calls for more funding for services, I want to see the government step up to this challenge that will put pressure on mental health services like never before.

With crisis must come a reassessment of what really matters. Let’s use this to build a different society, a better society.