Air pollution was a major factor in causing Ella's death. Photograph: Ella Roberta Family Foundation Air pollution was a major factor in causing Ella's death. Photograph: Ella Roberta Family Foundation

‘Stop people dying’: Will a coroner’s report spur government to act on air pollution?

In December, nine-year old girl Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution listed on their death certificate after the inquest into her death was reopened.

Coroners who are concerned that similar deaths may yet occur are required by law to ask relevant public bodies what they are doing about it and make suggestions about how the problem can be fixed. 

The Prevention of Future of Deaths report in Ella’s case singles out three central government departments - DEFRA, the Department for Transport and the Department of Health and Social Care - as responsible for tackling the problem. And its key finding is that the government should set legally binding targets for particulate matter (PM) in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

This has been a contentious issue for months, as MPs and environmental campaigners have sought to have a limit for fine particulates (PM2.5) enshrined in the Environment Bill of “less than or equal to 10µg/m3” by January 2030. Some are calling for an entirely new piece of legislation to replace the existing Clean Air Act, known colloquially as ‘Ella’s law’. 

But the government has rebuffed all these attempts, promising only to set a PM2.5 target expressed as an annual mean and another, as yet unspecified, air quality target by October 2022. 

The pressure is now on. In a press briefing after the report was published, Ella’s mother Rosamund urged prime minister Boris Johnson to "please put this into law now to stop people dying”. She added that it would be a national embarrassment if this did not happen, given the UK’s role as host of the COP26 climate talks later this year.

If the government sets a legal target, campaigners say there are very clear actions that can be taken to meet it.

Ruth Chambers, senior parliamentary affairs associate and Philippa Borrowman, policy adviser, both at Green Alliance, say national and local governments should start by rolling out ambitious clean air zones across all UK cities, supported by wider improvements to public transport and active travel infrastructure. 

Friends of the Earth air pollution campaigner Jenny Bates says the UK’s £27bn roads programme (RIS2) should be scrapped and tackling flying would also make a big difference.

Katie Nield, UK clean air lawyer of ClientEarth, adds that the government should phase out wood burning, “in particular in urban areas where it is mostly a luxury” and bring in agricultural regulations to better manage ammonia emissions which subsequently form PM2.5.

Both Bates and Nield stress the importance of cross-government action on the air pollution problem. “The lack of a comprehensive approach across government has been part of the reason that progress to protect people’s health has been too slow to date,” says Nield. “That’s why ClientEarth has been calling for the Environment Bill to include a new clean air duty which requires all public bodies (including all government departments) to contribute to providing solutions on a national and local scale to protect human health now.”

The report also highlights low public awareness of sources of pollution information, and says local and national government must communicate this better.

Simon Birkett of Clean Air in London says his organisation has become “increasingly frustrated” by what it perceives as an unjustified reluctance by successive governments to provide basic information. 

Bates says a strengthened national network should end the current dual system of national and local monitoring. She adds that there is currently a gap on air pollution alerts, with no alert thresholds for PM. 

Nield agrees that better access to information would be helpful but stresses that it “should not be up to individuals to have to protect themselves from the dirty air around them – it is national government that has the main levers for change.”

Public bodies are not required to act on the recommendations of a coroner. But Jocelyn Cockburn, the lawyer who represented Ella’s family in court, told a press conference that, even if there is no legal obligation, there would be tremendous public pressure to act.

Oliver Carter, public law and human rights solicitor at law firm Irwin Mitchell, notes that there was no dispute from public authorities at the inquest that air pollution was the cause of many thousand premature deaths every year in the UK. He describes the report as a “clarion call” for lessons to be learned.

Cockburn also anticipated future legal challenges on air quality in the UK. “The law has a big role to play,” she said. “We need to be a little bit creative and we need to work in partnership.”

The three central government departments, the Mayor of London and the London Borough of Lewisham, as well as nine health profession bodies, now have until 17 June 2021 to respond to the coroner’s concerns, setting out what action they propose to take and when. 

A government spokesperson said it would “carefully consider the recommendations in the report and respond in due course”.

 

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