A LUNG disease charity has warned the Scottish Government that if people are not actively encouraged to hop back onto trains and buses more people will be “rushed to hospital” amid an potential air pollution spike.

The Scottish head of the British Lung Foundation has also called for plans for Scotland’s four major cities to set up legally-binding low emission zones (LEZs) to be “unpaused”, believing now is the “ideal opportunity” for the proposals to be put back on the table.

The Scottish Government announced the LEZ plans for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen have been put on hold, along with a raft of other strategies, with attention turning to battling against the Covid-19 crisis.

Research has found that more than 2,500 people die due to poor air quality in Scotland each year – with the toxic fumes contributing to lung conditions, with the very elderly and very young particularly at risk.

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Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has stressed he remains “committed to introducing Low Emission Zones in Scotland’s four largest cities as quickly as possible”.

Data collected from air pollution hotspots across Scotland found that in the first few weeks of the lockdown, there was a 68 per cent reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels at St John’s Road in Edinburgh, a 65 per cent reduction at a monitoring station in Glasgow and a 56 per cent fall at Lochee Road in Dundee.

But journeys have steadily increased as the lockdown can continued, according to data from Transport Scotland – and are likely to return closer to normal levels with the five-mile travel ban for leisure purposes now axed across most of Scotland.

In Edinburgh, council bosses have drawn up plans to restructure public transport, including potentially merging the management of Lothian Buses and Edinburgh Trams in a bid to establish a "sustainable, accessible and joined-up public transport system that is fit for the future".

The Scottish Government’s guidance tells people to “please consider whether you need to use public transport, to ensure it is available for those with no alternative”.

There are also concerns that commuters and day-trippers are more likely to jump back in their cars, instead of using public transport, amid fears over social distancing and a lack of people wearing face coverings – which is now mandatory under Scottish Government rules.

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Under plans unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday, as phase three of the lockdown exit is put in place from July 15, two-metre social distancing could be cut in half on public transport, so long as mitigation measures, yet to be formalised, are put in place.

Joseph Carter, the head of Scotland and other devolved nations for the British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK, believes the reduction in air pollution has been “a blip” and has now called for a “clearer steer from ministers that public transport is now safe” to avoid an increase in air pollution causing more health harm.

Mr Carter pointed to a “steady increase in the vehicle usage going up”.

He added: “I think our real concern is we are going to see air pollution going back to where it was but potentially worse and more air pollution and more traffic this autumn, simply over people’s fears with using public transport.

“We think the time is right now not just for people to go onto public transport if they have to but they should go onto it in a positive way. We do need to get a positive steer from the Scottish Government that public transport is re-open for business and that it is safe to use.

“If that was something that the ministers were leading by example on rather than with some uncertainty that would really help – it is all about confidence now and the measures, such as face coverings, are in place.”

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The charity is also calling for LEZ plans to be put front and centre of the Scottish Government’s agenda as the country begins to emerge from the lockdown and people begin to travel more freely – and is pleading with officials to make any proposals stricter than previously planned.

He said: “Unless we can get people back onto trains and buses, that will lead to people being rushed to hospital with asthma attacks - that’s why we would like to see Low Emission Zones (LEZ) be unpaused.

“That can be deadly and at the very least, hospitalisation. These are real people’s lives that have been benefitted because of it – but that is at risk.”

He added: “I think, what we have seen in London and internationally, is their equivalent of LEZs being brought back and being strengthened and that is the sort of approach we would like the Scottish Government to be taking.

“We want ministers to keep investing in the infrastructure needed for LEZs to be brought forward in Scotland’s four major cities.”

The Scottish Government is yet to confirm when LEZ plans will be restarted – but reviews will take place this year and in 2021 in order to set out a timeframe.

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Mr Matheson said: “To improve air quality, to respond to the climate emergency and to protect public health, I am committed to introducing Low Emission Zones in Scotland’s four largest cities as quickly as possible.

“Local authorities share this ambition and Scotland’s first LEZ in Glasgow has been in place since 2018. Reviews will be undertaken across 2020 and 2021 to determine the earliest date when LEZs could realistically be introduced using the powers of the Transport (Scotland) Act.”

Edinburgh City Council has drawn up options for the future operation of public transport in the capital, including the possibility of creating a single company to oversee them.

Officials have warned councillors that the current set-up has "led to challenges regarding collaboration and integration".

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Work on Edinburgh's £207 million tram extension has restarted after being paused during the lockdown. Lothian Buses had previously criticised the council's plans to overhaul how people move around the city, which will include redrawing existing bus routes – meaning some services would no longer travel through the city centre.

Council leader Adam McVey said: “This is about creating a sustainable, accessible and joined-up public transport system that is fit for the future. "As we’ve experienced over recent months, and will continue to do so, our city, like others, is undergoing a significant period of change as a result of Covid-19, and we must adapt in response.

“We simply must change the way we move around the city if we are to meet our ambitious goals to become carbon neutral by 2030and to create a fairer, more inclusive environment."