As UK lockdowns ease, fears grow of return to pre-pandemic crime and pollution levels
In a sudden realisation of what climate campaigners have been urging for years, flights were cancelled, vehicle use plummeted and the oil industry found itself in turmoil as lockdown restrictions took hold.
Globally, greenhouse gas daily emissions had plunged by 17% by early April compared with 2019 levels. In the UK the decline was about 31%, while in Australia emissions fell by 28.3% during a period in April. However, the drop is now just 5% as people begin to return to work and pre-lockdown habits.
A particular fear among climate experts is that emissions could reboundhigher than pre-lockdown levels if people desert public transport in favour of cars, and a trend towards greater cycling and walking fails to stick.
Corinne Le Quere, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia and the lead author of research charting emissions figures, said most of the fall and rebound had come from road transport. “It would be terrible if we carry on going back to normal,” she said. “It would be a disaster.”
Although there has been an increase in domestic abuse under lockdown, many other other kinds of crime have fallen significantly as people have stayed off the streets.
Crime was down by as much as 28% overall three weeks into the lockdown, and the Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick said falls in gun and knife crime were “silver linings” to the pandemic.
However, crime recorded by Britain’s largest police force has now started to rise again. The Met recorded 48,349 offences in April, compared with 74,898 in April 2019, and 56,514 in May.
Last weekend in London there were two fatal shootings, knife attacks, and the discovery of the bodies of two sisters stabbed to death in a park in Wembley.
In Scotland, the country’s most senior police officer said crime returned to normal levels during the first weekend of looser lockdown rules.
By the beginning of April, road travel was down by as much as 73%, to levels not seen since 1955. This brought falls in pollution: data released in March showed falls in tiny particle pollution of a between a third and a half in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.
An unwelcome side-effect was speeding, as two-thirds of Britain’s police forces caught people driving in excess of 100mph during the first three weeks of the lockdown.
By late April, concerns were being expressed that traffic levels were starting to climb again. Then came the ditching of the government’s “Stay home” message on 10 May and the announcement that people could drive to parks, places of outstanding natural beauty and other outdoor locations to exercise and enjoy the open air.
Since then there has been further easing of the rules, data from the AA at the end of May showed that weekend traffic was at around 80% of normal levels, with about 15m cars on the road.
The government moved quickly to get people off the streets, and the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, claimed 90% of rough sleepers had been moved into safe accommodation, although there was some scepticism about that figure.
But it has been reported that ministers have pulled the plug on the Everyone In scheme, which involved GBP3.2bn being given to councils to find housing for people or put them in hotel rooms. Spokespeople for the government have said any suggestion that it is reneging on commitments on homelessness made at the start of the pandemic would be wrong.
It’s been a period of volunteering, smiles and waves exchanged between neighbours, and the weekly clap for the NHS. Polling by ICM for the Together campaign – a coalition of community groups – found that the country feels more connected than it did before the crisis.
Yet as the lockdown eases and the jobs furlough scheme comes to an end, concerns have been expressed that community cohesion may begin to fray amid resentments and potential new divisions along class, generational and other lines.
Prof Clifford Stott, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) sub-committee on behaviour, has said rising unemployment and concerns about racial and economic inequality could lead to riots this summer.
Localised lockdowns could also become “very problematic” if it meant people living in poorer areas were more likely to face tougher restrictions than those in affluent ones, he said, speaking in a personal capacity.
Most recently, and notwithstanding the hope engendered for many by Black Lives Matters protests, campaigns around some statues and monuments have been met with opposition, in some cases reawakening faultlines from the Brexit debate.
Thinktanks such the Young Foundation point out that people have been issued with a set of rules about keeping apart from others just as a community spirit has been reawakened. With the “adrenalin shot” of the immediate crisis waning, it said the next wave of government instructions may become “more complex and asymmetrical.”
Others such as Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future thinktank, said polling showed people feel Britain will emerge from the pandemic as a kinder society, though he noted that “disaster sociology” experts cautioned not to get carried away with the new sense of social cohesion.
He said: “Our stronger sense of togetherness may fray and fragment as the shared experience of the crisis fragments. Arguments about the right pace of lockdown easing, or choices about what does or does not change in the economy and society, will take centre stage and provoke disagreement and division.”