Tell motorists to help tackle London’s toxic air peaks, authorities urged

Campaigners have called on the government to urge people not to drive or light wood-burning stoves during toxic air peaks rather than telling the vulnerable not to exercise or go outside.

London suffered its worst air pollution since 2018 on Friday, when experts predicted it would reach “band 10”, the highest level on the scale.

The government issued warnings and advised older people and those with lung or heart problems to avoid strenuous physical activity. Even healthy people were told to “reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as a cough or sore throat”.

Air pollution campaigners, however, said it was unacceptable to impose more restrictions on elderly or unwell people rather than address the sources of pollution.

Jemima Hartshorn of Mums for Lungs said: “Londoners are facing the highest pollution episode in years. It has been known for days that today would be very bad for health and what we need is a clear call to every Londoner not to drive, idle vehicles or burn wood.

“Just asking vulnerable people not to exercise, without asking everyone else not to reduce their contribution to pollution is unfair and absolves people from their responsibility.”

Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, said: “Resorting to telling people not to exercise during a spike in air pollution levels is like asking victims of burglary not to get robbed.

“While health warnings must be taken seriously, they must come with a request for Londoners to halt all non-essential driving and the use of wood burners. Only by stopping the causes of air pollution will it be brought under control.

“London’s dangerous air pollution levels certainly are not the fault of those wanting to go for a jog.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which put out this week’s guidance, declined to comment when asked to respond to the campaigners’ calls.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said earlier this week the capital could become mired in gridlock because of a shift towards driving during the Covid pandemic, risking a new health crisis from pollution.

Members of Khan’s team did call for people to drive only if it was essential on Friday, but there was no formal message from his office urging Londoners to leave their cars at home or to stop burning wood.