Nicky Philpott: Priorities for a #HealthyRecovery

There are many comparisons that can be made between climate change and coronavirus: both are causing widespread harm to health, and require urgent worldwide collaboration and action to prevent greater suffering. While we hope a vaccine will eventually be produced to protect us, when it comes to the climate emergency, as Belesova et al say in a recent BMJ Analysis, “there is no potential vaccine”—whether in months or years. 

There’s perhaps another difference between these two crises—the years of advanced warning we have had to prevent the greatest and irreversible effects of climate change. The case for the UK Government and international governments to ensure their recovery packages are consistent with rapidly reducing emissions is clear from a climate and health standpoint, and, as Belesova et al. explain, also from an economic standpoint. 

We are heading into the most severe recession in living memory. The last recession, following the 2008 global financial crisis, resulted in well-documented and widespread declines in both physical and mental health. The case for a healthy population giving rise to a healthy economy does not need to be made.

Encouragingly, public support for a recovery which contributes to the UK meeting its net-zero targets is high. Such a recovery is backed by almost 80% of members of the UK’s Climate Assembly (established as a representative sample of the population).

In collaboration with LSHTM and The BMJ, as one of our members, the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change has already outlined our principles for a healthy recovery. These are tests that we believe all recovery measures should undergo before being introduced—that they prioritise planetary health, build resilience in the economy and key services, accelerate carbon reduction, reduce health inequalities, are supported by science, and involve all of society.

In addition, we’ve also identified five areas in which action should be prioritised. To address the risks to health from unemployment on a large scale, and economic strife, we believe that Government investment should be targeted at low and no-carbon industries, as well as in the energy sector (both to encourage green innovation as well as the more mundane, but equally important, replacement of ‘dirty’ domestic heating).

We recently wrote to the Chancellor to this effect, and welcome his announcement of £3 billion to upgrade buildings and reduce emissions as a first step. However, in light of last week’s annual progress report on emissions reductions from the independent Committee on Climate Change, if the Government is to catch up on missed targets and get on track to meet its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions, more significant action is required in this and other areas.

Another of our priority areas is transport. Various measures to decrease transport-related emissions were already planned pre-covid but now is the time to advance them, having seen the potential benefits that relatively simple and convenient lifestyle changes can bring to the ongoing suppression of the virus, to health and to the environment. It is striking that the reduction in motorized traffic was the largest driver of global emission decline during the lockdown. We must redesign our towns and cities. We know walking and cycling bring about huge benefits to our health and our councils are making space for this, but we must also recognise the importance of public transport, something that people are being discouraged from or are now nervous to use.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change agrees with the academics that, to protect health in the long and short term, such measures should be made permanent and others in the pipeline should be brought forward—such as the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, which is already due to come into force no later than 2035

Belesova et al. stress the need for lifestyle changes in response to covid-19 and cooperation at the science—policy—public interface to be harnessed to catalyse decisive action on climate and the wider environmental emergency. In addition to changes to the way people travel, individuals and Government will both need to make changes to the way food is produced, sold and consumed if we are to achieve a healthy recovery. We have called for the completion of the National Food Strategy, and the consideration of measures such as labelling and even pricing food in relation to its environmental impact.

Finally, as our fifth and six principles for a healthy recovery suggest, the health sector should play a central role in the design and delivery of recovery measures, but must also look at their own sector and practices, to consider what could be done to aid recovery and avoid a further health crisis driven by climate change. 

NHS England had already determined to act before the pandemic, and they are not allowing the current disruption to dampen their resolve. Through the Greener NHS programme, and supported by an advisory committee upon which the Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change sits, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit is developing a plan for how it will achieve net-zero emissions in the health service, including a target date.

To support this we ran a twitter poll in July, in which we asked health professionals from all backgrounds, and of all specialities—“Has the pandemic made your practice more sustainable in any way, and what changes would you like to keep?” Follow us @UKHealthClimate to read others’ thoughts and share your own. 

Nicky Philpott is Director of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change

Competing interest: The BMA and The BMJ are members of the Alliance, and the two employees of the Alliance are based in the BMJ offices.