Hundreds of GPs and other health professionals have urged the Labour Party to remain committed to tackling air pollution with the ULEZ expansion.
London’s controversial Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) policy, which was initially introduced in 2019 and currently covers central and inner areas, charges £12.50 daily to any drivers with vehicles that do not meet the minimum emissions standards.
The upcoming expansion at the end of this month, meaning all London boroughs will be covered, featured heavily in the recent Uxbridge byelection, which the Conservative party ultimately won.
In a letter to the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, a group of health professionals have implored them to avoid ‘watering down or pausing the scheme’ in order to appease a ‘vocal minority’.
Signed by 415 professionals, of which 133 were GPs, the letter warned of the negative health impacts of air pollution and asserted that ULEZ ‘has already saved lives and prevented many illnesses and hospital admissions’.
It said: ‘Air pollution affects every one of us from before we are born into old age. It not only causes respiratory conditions such as asthma, but also heart attacks, heart arrhythmias, strokes, child developmental disorders, lung cancer and dementia.’
Tower Hamlets LMC chair Dr Jackie Applebee, who organised the letter sent 23 July, told Pulse that as a GP she sees ‘people who have moved to London from areas with better air quality who complain of coughs and decrease in fitness’.
She said: ‘There are then the probably less easy to quantify but nevertheless very significant worsening of asthma, COPD, heart disease, strokes, which I can’t quantify but will be ever present.’
Following Labour’s defeat in the Uxbridge byelection last month, Sir Keir Starmer said the Labour party must be doing something ‘very wrong’ if policies like ULEZ become a political weapon for the Conservatives.
However, the group of health professionals have urged the Labour politicians to ‘stand firm’.
They wrote: ‘You cannot allow a vocal minority, who ignore the science to suit their own ends, to intimidate you into watering down or pausing the scheme. Doing so may buy you some votes from those people, but at what cost?’
‘To kowtow to those who shout loudest is a dangerous precedent, and risks alienating hundreds of thousands of others who may feel that there is no point in voting for Labour if you can’t stick to any of the promises you have made on public health policies,’ they added.
However, the letter recognised the economic impact of the ULEZ expansion on those who ‘will struggle’ to change their vehicle or pay the charge.
It said: ‘The poor should not be penalised in the drive to bring down emissions, ULEZ should be introduced in tandem with a much more affordable, frequent and reliable public transport system.’
According to the Government, air pollution is the ‘largest environmental risk to public health’ and causes between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths in the UK every year.
The total cost of air pollutants to the NHS between 2017 and 2025 is estimated to be around £1.6bn.
Dr Applebee said: ‘ULEZ is important but it’s not enough, it is a start but we need to go much further if we are to improve air quality and to reverse global warming.
‘We need to stop burning fossil fuels. The technology is there, but I fear the political will is not.’
Experts recently found that poor health of the nation costs almost £16bn annually and urged the Government to commit to spending 10% of NHS funding on preventive measures, including to improve air quality.