SCOTLAND should consider permanently allowing office workers to log on from home in an attempt to permanently improve air quality and save lives, politicians have said.

The country’s four major cities have seen nitrogen dioxide levels plummet during the Covid-19 lockdown as commuter traffic has all but disappeared as workers, particularly those who would normally be travelling to offices work from home.

But the gains in air quality are likely to only be temporary, as things stand - despite new research pointing to a small increase in long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) leading to substantial increases in Covid-19 death rates.

Data from Air Quality in Scotland found that readings of nitrogen dioxide at hotspots in Scottish cities has fallen sharply from the same period last year.

Nitrogen dioxide levels at a monitoring site in Hope Street, Glasgow, have fallen from 75μg/m3 to 20μg/m3 – a drop of 73 per cent, while levels in Union Street, Aberdeen, have dropped by 56%. In Lochee Road, Dundee, they have fallen by 43%, while St John’s Road, Edinburgh, has experienced a nitrogen dioxide tumble of 57%.

The summary analysis by Air Quality in Scotland concludes that the current lockdown measures to suppress the spread of Covid-19 “has resulted in a dramatic drop in road traffic within Scotland’s cities”.

The Herald: The air pollution readings, Image: Air Quality in ScotlandThe air pollution readings, Image: Air Quality in Scotland

It adds: “It is well established that road traffic is the main source of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) within these cities and so it is safe to assume that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations will have decreased during the lockdown. 

“The current situation provides an opportunity to investigate what improved air quality within Scotland’s cities could look like in the future.”

Harvard University has undertaken research in America on the impact of air pollution on Covid-19 patients – revealing that an increase of only 1μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the Covid-19 death rate.

It added: “A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in Covid-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality.

READ MORE: Edinburgh among world's most eco-friendly travel destinations

“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the Covid-19 crisis.”

The Scottish Greens have called for a conversation to take place once the Covid-19 pandemic has been resolved about what business as usual looks like.

Scottish Greens health spokeswoman Alison Johnstone said: “While these figures reflect the temporary impact of the lockdown, they are still striking. High levels of nitrogen dioxide can damage lungs and the environment, and this drop in levels will also apply to the number of the fine particulate matter that directly pass into 
the bloodstream and can cause heart disease.

“Earlier this week American research showed a small increase in long-term exposure to this matter leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate, so we are more aware than ever of the impact that the air pollution levels we considered normal were having on our health.

“The question now should be whether it is appropriate or safe to ever return to those levels? Business as usual was harming our health and our budgets, as well as being inefficient and contributing to climate emissions. We now know we have options, and it wouldn’t make sense to forget the lessons the pandemic has taught us.”

But campaigners have warned that huge demand for supermarket goods has seen more HGV traffic on Scotland’s roads, suggesting that not everyone is experiencing an improvement in air quality.

Friends of the Earth Scotland air pollution campaigner, Gavin Thomson, said: “With the huge reductions in road traffic that we’ve seen in the past few weeks, there are corresponding reductions in air pollution. 

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: Huge rise in cycling to escape lockdown blues

“This is most apparent on the main arterial routes in and out of cities, as there are very few cars. But the data suggests pollution hasn’t fallen equally across Scotland. With much of the bus network still active for key workers and essential journeys, and unprecedented demand for supermarkets leading to more HGV traffic, there are still areas where residents may not see any break from pollution.”

He added: “We should not celebrate these improvements in air quality because they have arrived at a huge social cost. They are not spread evenly across our cities and are not sustainable unless we change our transport system. We will need concerted effort from the Scottish Government and councils to improve our air quality in the long term. 

“Changes we’ve seen during this shutdown, such as many people working from home who couldn’t previously, and families cycling together on quiet streets, would be great to see sustained as we exit this period of shutdown. But our priority for now needs to be ensuring safe social distancing for all, and ensuring key workers can get to work as quickly and safely as possible.”

The Scottish Government has drawn up proposals for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen to introduce low emission zones (LEZs) in an attempt to improve air quality.

A charity has urged that the LEZ plans continue, and stressed the importance of better air quality for those recovering from coronavirus.

READ MORE: Opinion: Lockdown proves life - and our cities - are better without cars

Joseph Carter, head of Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Scotland, said: “The decrease in air pollution has been an unexpected outcome of the coronavirus pandemic with lockdown drastically reducing the amount of travelling we’re doing as a country.

“Whilst social distancing has been an extreme change to our daily lives, it has been great to see the increase in bicycle commuting and we hope that this will continue after lockdown is lifted.”

He added: “The removal of traffic from city centres has demonstrated clear benefits to air quality and therefore lung health – so it is crucial that low emission zones continue to be introduced across Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. This will protect everybody’s health, including the one in five Scots with an existing respiratory condition and those recovering from Covid-19.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged the pandemic is having 
a “very serious negative impact on the economy” and that any opportunities during the recovery are “not about saying we are happy to see businesses fail”.

She added: “But this does give us – I don’t like using the word opportunity when we’re dealing with something so serious and so difficult – but this will give us (an opportunity) in so many ways, in terms of the economy, in how we deal with inequality, in terms of the climate and of our own wellbeing.

“It gives us a chance, as we rebuild and recover and repair, to think about whether we want to do things differently and I think that’s an opportunity we should certainly take.”

READ MORE: Encouraging sustainable transport to explore 5,000 years of Scotland’s history

Scottish economic think-tank the Fraser of Allander Institute has posed a series of questions over how the Scottish economy could operate post-pandemic, including raising concerns over “wellbeing and fair work practices in these new working environments”.

It adds: “Might there be opportunities, including greater acceptance of the need for work-life-balance and mixing caring and work responsibilities together? But what are the risks too, particularly around mental health, isolation and social interaction? 

“Might the move to greater ‘home-working’ have knock-on implications too for sectors such as real estate, with reduced demand for office space, or public transport, with reduced demands on commuting?”

The FAI also said that “on the one had, reductions in industrial and transportation activity should reduce emissions in the short-term”, but warned that “much of this will be temporary”.

It added: “If resources - both public and private - are diverted from climate action to repairing the economy and government indebtedness, might the world’s clean energy transition be blown off course?”

Any overhaul of whether people continue to commute on a mass scale, would have a huge impact on business, particularly after the pandemic is resolved, amid warnings Scotland’s economy could shrink significantly.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has compelled companies to adopt remote working practises which for some has been quite successful, but there are many signals that productivity and work-life balance are coming under pressure.

“For some sectors, working from home may be more of a natural fit so adopting this during lockdown may encourage more of the same in future. But for others the restrictions are having evident, deleterious effects.

“Overall, business is about people and will still rely on fostering strong professional relationships. We have seen it is possible to do this from behind a computer screen for a short time but it is unlikely to replace face to face contact entirely.’’