There are some silver linings to the dark clouds that have rolled overhead since March, the most obvious one being an almost overnight improvement in the air quality of cities.
For instance, York University analysed data from local traffic monitoring sites in the early weeks of lockdown and discovered a cut of 43 per cent in lethal nitrogen dioxide readings, while in Leeds an air sampling station in the city centre recorded its lowest level of traffic fume toxins since going live in 1994. You can be sure the same thing is happening right across the north, from Hull to Liverpool, and in every other urban street in Britain.
Where I live on the fringe of the Leeds-Bradford conurbation I know the air has improved because on a vigorous walk I can feel my lungs filling to full capacity, something I haven’t experienced since I breathed in the almost intoxicating crystal-clear air found above the Arctic Circle on a trip to Greenland 20 years ago.
But as the government begins the process of easing people back to work this remarkable fresh air fest will be temporary for most of us, a huge blip on the graph of poisonous exhaust fumes we are expected to inhale each day.
But it doesn’t have to happen. In York at least, councillors have been sufficiently amazed by the change to plan a post-lockdown zero-emissions city, the UK’s first, by allowing only electric vehicles and bikes. The traffic reduction hasn’t just improved York’s air quality, councillors say. It has encouraged far more people to walk and cycle, and the lockdown has so transformed the city that there can be no going back to the old network of clogged and polluted streets.
Another city to learn a big lockdown lesson is Seattle in the US, where they sealed off many streets to give residents room to exercise. Now the mayor has decided that the improvement in their quality of life merits the permanent closure of 20 miles of streets to most vehicles.
Slowly, other cities are following York and Seattle’s lead. In Manchester part of Deansgate is to be pedestrianised, and Leeds City Council has announced a usually busy street in the city centre will become a continental-style boulevard of street cafés. But these small steps must be followed by bolder leaps. And the biggest challenge of all, I think, will be to curtail the twice-daily ritual of the school run, which threatens to bring the pre-lockdown gridlock and air pollution spikes back to urban areas.
Meanwhile, the list of lockdown pluses continues to grow and you have to think, hey, does life really have to go back to the way it was? At long last doctors, nurses, other medical staff and carers are getting the praise they deserve. Millions are no longer eating unhealthy fast food. People now walk around their neighbourhoods, and they actually say “hello” to each other. As vapour trails largely vanish from our skies, satellites are observing there is far less pollution in the atmosphere. That has to be good news for all those whose homes and businesses are vulnerable to the extreme weather events of climate change.
And perhaps just in time, millions of people have had the opportunity to discover what is really important in their lives.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe