There are numerous benefits to be had by organisations incorporating Clean Air into business recovery plans. With COVID-19 forcing a national conversation about the importance of air quality to health indicators and defence against respiratory illnesses, it is vital that businesses help customers and employees get our economy up and running in a way that positively impacts sustainability and health.
By thinking smart about return to work plans, businesses can:
- Get staff and customers back to your place of business - by promoting healthy and safe low-pollution journeys avoiding public transport
- Help customers access your goods and services safely - by offering zero-emission deliveries and environments to enjoy them
- Drive business continuity, staff retention, wellbeing and engagement - by supporting employees to work well remotely
- Support the national effort to fight coronavirus, particularly for disadvantaged inner-city communities – by doing your bit to keep the air we breathe as clean as possible
Why Clean Air matters now more than ever
Public demand for action: Employees and customers are concerned about air quality more than ever before and expect businesses to take action. The majority of people in the UK (72%) think that clean air is even more important now because coronavirus can affect people’s lungs. An overwhelming majority (74%) want business to “do more to cut pollution and traffic after the lock down so that neighbourhoods don’t go back to the way they were” with 85% of people listing at least one specific pollution-reduction measure they want businesses to take.
Scientist recommendations: Clean Air has a vital role to play in protecting people with existing health conditions and aiding recovery from respiratory illnesses; health conditions that are caused or worsened by air pollution - such as asthma, heart disease and COPD - make a person more vulnerable to complications if they contract Covid-19. If any person contracts Covid-19, which is principally a respiratory illness, they can become short of breath. It is therefore imperative that those recovering from and managing respiratory illness.
Business For Clean Air identified six categories of action on air pollution that are highly relevant to the recovery from COVID-19. Below is a short summary of new opportunities made available because of the experiences during lockdown, and the national and local policy responses.
Or find out how to create a Clean Air Plan for your business.
Homeworking has been vital to keep businesses running during the lockdown, with 6 in 10 employees saying they have been working from home at least some of the time. Flexible working includes the ability to work remotely (at home or another location such as a local shared office space) rather than a fixed office location only. It also includes offering and normalising staggered start times to ease people’s commutes and caring responsibilities. With social distancing on public transport set to remain in place for the months ahead, and a need to discourage increased private vehicle use to prevent gridlock and pollution, flexible working is a key tool for business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Remote working could reduce as many as 1 in 5 work commutes by car if people work remotely 1 or 2 days a week.
- Research has shown that the majority of people (87%) who were home working during the coronavirus crisis would like to continue to work from home to some extent.
- 41% (4 million people) were previously discouraged from homeworking before lockdown.
- 54% of lockdown homeworkers saying they are less stressed and 65% are happier not to deal with rush hour, while 44% report an improvement in their sleep.
- However 44% of homeworkers “struggle to switch off” at the end of a home-work day and 56% say they face more distractions working at home (perhaps heightened by children at home due to school closures). Businesses should provide policies, training and equipment to help staff work well.
With shops and enterprises opening up for business again, getting staff to work safely is of utmost importance. With public transport capacity dramatically reduced over the coming months, and car parking limited and discouraged to avoid pollution spiking, active travel is a key opportunity for employers.
18% of people travel to work using public transport, while 68% commute by car or van. Road transport is the largest contributor to nitrogen dioxide (NOx) air pollution in the UK. Nitrogen dioxide can damage lung health and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.
Recent coronavirus-related social distancing requirements have cut public transport capacity by 90%. To allow those who need to travel by public transport, or private vehicle, to do so in a safe and timely way, and to prevent dramatic spikes in air pollution, our national rates of walking and cycling must increase.
So far 370,000 more people are walking for travel purposes and in London cycling rates have shot up by 300% on some days, with a 50% surge in bicycle sales in April 2020. A recent survey, commissioned by Global Action Plan and executed by Opinium, revealed that 47% of people would like to walk more after lockdown eases, 23% of people would like to cycle more after lockdown eases and 26% want to drive less.
The UK government has recently announced a £2 billion package to promote walking and cycling in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Employers can promote Cycle to Work schemes to employees. Companies can offer Salary Sacrifice or Loans to help employees access discounts for bicycle purchases. Employers can also promote the government’s new vouchers for cycle repairs. From June people can access a £50 bicycle maintenance voucher, of which 500,000 will be available.
Light goods vehicles contribute 30% of UK road transport’s nitrogen dioxide emissions, which is harmful to human health at any time but particularly in the wake of a respiratory pandemic. These emissions are set to increase as vans are the fastest growing vehicle type in the country.
Right now, with many commercial buildings experiencing lower occupancy resulting in a reduction of deliveries to site, the conditions are more suitable than ever to work with other building occupants and local businesses in your neighbourhood to consolidate deliveries made your offices. Some Business Improvement Districts are facilitating consolidated delivery pilots between businesses in close proximity, and so we recommend businesses investigate such schemes in their area.
Working with local providers using zero pollution vehicles such as cargo-bikes is another way of reducing local air pollution, supporting smaller enterprises at the same time, many of which will have been hit hardest financially by the lockdown.
People are taking an increasing interest in clean air, with the majority thinking that it is now more important than ever. 74% think businesses need to do more to improve air quality so neighbourhoods don’t go back to the way they were before lockdown. 42% of people would like to see local businesses using more electric vans and scooters for deliveries.
Customers are also prepared to play their part, with over 80% prepared to wait for at least 3 days for non-urgent deliveries, taking the pressure off the need for next-day deliveries and giving the opportunity for better coordinated, lower pollution options. 54% would be happy to collect packages from a local town centre.
The lockdown has meant that around a quarter of the UK’s working population have just experienced homeworking for the first time – meaning that millions of employees worked in an entirely new setting. Meanwhile, the existing workspaces, from factories to offices, are undergoing significant changes to accommodate protective measures to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. Whilst distance between individuals and high cleanliness are hot topics, ventilation is also an important factor in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, it can be surprisingly easy to cause a build-up of health-damaging levels of air pollution in settings we’re not accustomed to working in – like our homes.
Professor Alastair Lewis of York University (and Chair of Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group) recently presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution to explain how air pollution has changed during the lockdown. He confirmed that air pollution has been lower due to the drop in traffic levels, but that this doesn’t mean that people’s exposure is necessarily lower, citing the specific example that someone now working at home from a kitchen table may be exposed to significantly more pollution if adequate ventilation isn’t used to remove particulate matter emitted from ovens and hobs while cooking.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution’s new Air Quality Strategy to Reduce Coronavirus Infection recommends an awareness campaign to help people reduce indoor air pollution. It also calls for the government to accelerate its planned ban on wet wood to heat homes and ban domestic stoves, highlighting the risks to health of these behaviours. Global Action Plan has produced a simple flyer that employers can share with staff to help people enjoy better air quality at home.
Air quality in commercial and manufacturing sites is just as important in avoiding employees being exposed to high levels of pollution, with a potentially wider range of pollutants in those premises than in the home.
It is hard to remember a time when it was more popular to make streets, squares and green spaces better places for people to walk and cycle safely and spend time. This presents a huge opportunity for business to give customers an experience that embraces the great outdoors and makes it safer for customers to reach retail and eateries – especially those that previously relied on public transport.
With the retail and hospitality sectors seeking to return to trading as safely and quickly as possible, businesses can combine opening their doors with helping create clean air neighbourhoods. To facilitate social distancing and reduce air pollution exposure faced by your employees, customers and community, companies can participate in the government’s new changes in traffic regulation orders by collaborating with other local businesses and your local authority to prioritise open space for people over vehicles. Road closures and parking restrictions outside your premises can not only provide more space for customers to social distance, they can also help reduce exposure to air pollution.
Contact your local council to understand how you can support them in their active travel planning and how they can make the most of the £280million in funding released by UK governments.
In London, companies can support the Mayor’s Streetspace initiative
- In Manchester, companies can support the Safe Streets Save Lives campaign
- In Birmingham respond to the emergency transport plan
Businesses can also participate in industry led campaigns such as the Grand Outdoor Summer Cafe to collaborate with others in their sector to call for streetspace to be temporarily used for businesses rather than road traffic.
In May 2020 the Department for Transport announced an extra £10 million to incentivise local authorities to install up to 7,200 additional electric vehicle chargepoints through the On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme.
Businesses could ask local authorities in key locations for their business to apply for this funding so that customers and employees can make use of EV charge points at home.