IT MIGHT be the death toll from a famine or a civil war – 50,000 lives lost needlessly every year.
But it isn’t a shocking statistic from a catastrophe in some remote corner of the world. This is the number of people dying prematurely because of air pollution in Britain, now the second most congested country in the world when it comes to traffic.
If that number of deaths were attributable to an epidemic of an infectious disease, such as flu, the country would be treating it as a national crisis, with daily meetings of the COBRA emergency committee and extra funds found to do whatever was necessary to combat the threat.
Shamefully, nothing of the sort is happening. Instead of being treated as possibly the greatest threat to public health of our times, pollution appears to be low on the list of Government priorities.
Then there is the financial cost to be added to the human tally – on the Government’s own figures, a colossal £27bn in healthcare and days lost to business because of illness.
Yet where is the national strategy to combat this menace, despite the calls from medical professionals that something must be done urgently?
The Government, in the shape of the seemingly ineffectual Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Andrea Leadsom, has rejected the idea of a scrappage scheme for the oldest and most polluting vehicles and ignored calls for a new Clean Air Act.
Instead, in what is becoming a disturbing trend on this Government’s part, it is dumping responsibility onto local authorities to sort the problems out, just as it has with addressing the shortfall in social care for the elderly and vulnerable.
Leeds is among the cities tasked with piloting new clean air zones to discourage the use of the dirtiest vehicles, and it is to be hoped it succeeds.
But this piecemeal approach in some of the worst pollution hotspots dotted around the country is simply not good enough. This is a national problem, and needs to be tackled centrally.
If the Government needed to be reminded that a joined-up approach is the only way to get to grips with a problem as insidious and all-pervading as pollution, it would do well to note that this year marks the 65th anniversary of the lethal great smog of 1952 that killed 4,000 in London in three days. The death toll eventually rose to more than 8,000, as the elderly, infirm and young were choked by the toxic atmosphere caused by fog and the smoke of coal fires.
That was a disaster with its roots in decades of neglect of a growing pollution problem and the parallels with our own age are striking. Then, the number of deaths was so appalling that the cause could no longer be ignored, resulting in the 1956 Clean Air Act which eventually lifted the palls of smoke hanging over the country.
But the number of people dying and being made ill today is equally appalling, so why is so little being done?
The fumes belched out by the millions of vehicles crammed onto our congested roads are not only taking lives now, but storing up heaven knows what health problems for the future.
Last week’s threat by the European Commission of court action and fines running into the hundreds of millions of pounds because of Britain’s persistent breaches of EU pollution limits may concentrate minds.
But equally, given the febrile atmosphere surrounding Brexit, it may be dismissed as meddlesome bureaucracy and further evidence that we will be well rid of the EU.
The Government is currently being put to shame over tackling pollution by the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who wants to introduce a scrappage scheme and penalties for the most polluting vehicles to deter them from entering the capital.
They may not be complete solutions to the problem, but at least Mr Khan is attempting to take action.
His point that the cost of paying motorists to swap their old diesel vehicles for newer, cleaner ones would be far less than the NHS bill for treating people made ill by pollution is well-made and has the merit of sound common sense.
To an extent, the Government is faced with mopping up the mistakes of previous administrations, particularly Labour’s endorsement of diesels as relatively environmentally-friendly, which although done in good faith, has turned out to be utterly wrong.
But that cannot be an excuse for doing so little. The preventable deaths of tens of thousands of people, who have no choice but to breathe badly polluted air on their way to work or school, have to be tackled.
Next month’s Budget provides an ideal opportunity for the announcement of a comprehensive strategy on pollution, complete with financial incentives to get the dirtiest vehicles off the road. The need to save lives demands the Government takes it.