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Paul Murphy: If we are serious about tackling Covid, we must get real on ventilation

The People Before Profit TD says ventilation has been all but ignored by the government in the battle against Covid.

Paul Murphy

Updated Nov 30th 2021, 10:00 AM

IRELAND HAS ONE of the highest vaccination rates in Europe and one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates.

These two facts should tell us that vaccines alone will not provide a way out of the pandemic – especially with the appearance of the new, seemingly more transmissible Omicron variant.

What’s needed now is a “Vaccines Plus” strategy of:

  • Prevention – masks, ventilation, hygiene
  • Vaccination – including boosters, and lifting patents to allow rapid global rollout, and
  • Control – PCR and antigen testing, backward and forward contact tracing, and supported isolation.

These will work, of course, combined with a properly resourced National Health Service.

So far in this country, one of the weakest links in the government’s Covid response has been ventilation. Think about how often you have heard about ventilation compared to how often you’ve been told to wash your hands – anyone would think handwashing is far more important to stopping transmission when the opposite is true.

Tackle the air

Since mid-2020 at the latest scientists have known, and it has since become widely accepted internationally, that Covid-19 is an airborne virus. It spreads through the air – whether at “close contact” or over longer distances inside poorly ventilated buildings.

Assistant Professor at the UCD School of Architecture and former Member of the Expert Group on the Role of Ventilation in Reducing Transmission of Covid-19, Orla Hegarty, has spelt out what this has meant in Ireland: 60% of the people who have tragically died of Covid were infected in fewer than 400 buildings – mainly nursing homes and hospitals.

Right now, a large percentage of infections are happening inside schools, offices, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and private homes. Wherever people gather indoors and air quality is poor, transmission can happen – and with it the opportunity for ‘superspreading’ events which are the main way the virus spreads.

Beyond Covid, indoor air pollution poses a much broader threat to public health – globally, it is estimated to cause four million deaths a year and contributes to asthma, allergies and the spread of other respiratory diseases. It’s time we started to see clean indoor air as being vitally important for public health, alongside clean water and food safety.

Clean indoor air

One solution is to clean the air. That means using natural and mechanical ventilation, combined with air filtration or purification where necessary.

Coronavirus particles hang around in the air like exhaled cigarette smoke. So using a Co2 monitor to measure the level of carbon dioxide in the air is a useful way to estimate whether the virus would be able to hang around and infect people or whether it would be quickly blown away.

This has only been done here to a very limited extent. Some schools were provided with fewer than one Co2 monitor per room but the government has failed to supply monitors to any other public buildings or public transport, or to require them in workplaces. There are still no legally enforceable minimum air quality standards measured in Co2 parts per million (ppm) as exist in countries like Belgium and Japan.

The government has also refused to provide HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters to schools, public transport or any other public buildings. These can be used in conjunction with natural ventilation to clean the air.

In September, the German federal government allocated €200 million to install air purifiers in schools and childcare centres. It’s estimated it would cost only €12 million to provide them to all Irish schools.

Finally, there is a real lack of high quality public health materials that explain the best ways to ensure multiple air changes per hour, for instance by using cross-currents, without needing to have all the windows wide open all the time.

It is unfortunate that material such as this video on workplace ventilation by the Health and Safety Authority is all that’s on offer – it’s literally an eight-second silent movie of someone opening a window. Is this the best the government can do? By contrast, countries such as Japan and even the UK have run quality public information campaigns that properly explain the issues. In Belgium, pubs and restaurants are required to display Co2 monitors.

As a result of this government‘s inaction, public awareness of the importance of clean air in combating the pandemic remains low. This is obvious whenever you get on a packed bus and all the windows are closed.

Workplace Ventilation Bill

To address this, People Before Profit is proposing a Private Members’ Bill on workplace ventilation this week, which we first launched last summer. This builds on existing health and safety legislation which already requires employers to ensure fresh air in enclosed workplaces but lacks an adequate definition of what fresh air is.

Our Bill defines clean air as having fewer than 900 ppm of Co2 – and puts the onus on employers to achieve this through ventilation or air filtration. (Employers would still also be subject to existing health and safety laws on minimum temperature standards for a comfortable workplace.)

The rationale for doing this is that almost every building where people gather aside from private homes is someone’s workplace. Many of the worst superspreading events have occurred in workplaces, with previous outbreaks in meat plants, restaurants, airplanes, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. It is through ensuring the right to clean air for workers that we can protect public health more broadly.

The Bill also empowers the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to measure clean air in the workplace and to issue improvement or prohibition notices as appropriate – similar to what happens to restaurants that breach food safety rules.

Finally, it empowers workers to request that the HSA carry out an inspection of the air in their workplace. This aims to address a major flaw in existing health and safety legislation, namely that it is solely up to the HSA which workplaces it chooses to inspect.

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State funding needed

Unfortunately, as an opposition party, PBP cannot include the increased government spending that would be needed to properly implement this Bill if it passes. If we could, we would fund the immediate provision of HEPA filters to all schools, public buildings, public transport, pubs and restaurants. This has been estimated to cost only €12 million for schools and €50 million for pubs and restaurants.

In the longer term, we would fund improved ventilation in all public buildings as part of retrofitting to reduce carbon emissions. Grants could be provided to small businesses if needed – similar to what is being done in Scotland.

Large employers should foot the bill themselves. It seems to be chiefly because of the significant costs that proper ventilation and air filtration would impose on big business that the government has so far refused to act in this area.

The resources of the HSA also need to be significantly increased so that all workplaces could be regularly inspected to ensure compliance with health and safety standards and to ensure that the HSA becomes responsive to workers. Trade unions should also be empowered to carry out inspections of workplaces and demand action from employers.

Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats have already indicated they will support our bill. We hope the Government parties will wake up and do the same.

Paul Murphy is People Before Profit spokesperson on Employment Rights and TD for Dublin South-West. Twitter @paulmurphy_TD.

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