Boris Johnson last night announced that a new alert system will be put in place in England to track the coronavirus. The data that results from comprehensive monitoring will then be used to inform policy on further easing of the lockdown (or the opposite).

As strong proponents of hyperlocal data from pervasive monitoring, we applaud this move, and the recognition that evidence-based policy- and decision-making is a good thing is a huge step forward in government thinking. We have been rapidly moving towards a digitised economy for a number of years, so using data more effectively in government would seem a clear and obvious step.

But if this approach is right for Covid-19, why can’t we take the same approach for air pollution? Air pollution is hyperlocal by its nature (short-lived very localised hotpots accounting for much of the health damage done), yet we don’t monitor it hyper-locally despite the technology being clearly available today.

No-one would underplay the danger of this pandemic, and we can’t yet estimate the final tally of those unfortunate enough to lose their lives as a result. But air pollution kills at least 40,000 people every year in the UK, and it would appear from recent research that high pollution levels increase the fatality rate of Covid-19, as well as endangering recovering patients with damaged lungs that are more susceptible to the impact of air pollution.

As Boris said tonight:

  • ‘Every day, with ever-increasing data…’
  • ‘Our system will be able to detect local flare-ups in your area, as well as giving us a national picture’
  • ‘We’ll be monitoring our progress locally, regionally, and nationally’

All this could also be true for a national system of hyperlocal air pollution monitoring. Surely the time has come to create such a system for the UK?

It could give everyone a far more accurate picture of air pollution on each street, around each home or office building, and wherever they travel (or planned to travel). It could alert vulnerable people (asthmatics, heart disease and cancer patients, and people with small children for example) so they could avoid the worst of the pollution.

But it could also give local authorities and the government all the insights they need to make simple interventions that will cut pollution effectively, rather than the broad-brush ‘do it and hope’ measures currently taken on modelled (and therefore inaccurate) data.

Boris – for a tiny fraction of what air pollution costs the NHS and our economy every year, we could build such a system right now – let’s do it!

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