Dáil debates

Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


10:02 am

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE) | Oireachtas source

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank those who have raised the central issue of ventilation in tackling the spread of Covid, for more than a year at this stage, in line with the science. They include Orla Hegarty, John Wenger, Dr. Kim Roberts and others who are on the expert group on ventilation. They have been very clear and very consistent on this issue, despite the fact it seems the Minister for Health is determined to ignore the expert group on ventilation, which was set up precisely to look into this issue, and instead take advice from a group with no expertise in it. I also thank Diana O'Dwyer and the People Before Profit team for their work in helping to prepare and promote this Bill.

The central point of this Bill is to give workers and students the right to clean air in workplaces, including schools. It does so by defining “sufficient fresh air” as "air with a CO2 concentration of less than 900 parts per million, where appropriate air filtration devices have not been installed." Those who have followed the science on this question will know that CO2parts per million acts as a very useful proxy for the potential for Covid to be hanging around in the air. It provides two routes whereby we can guarantee clean air for workers and students, either through bringing that level down to less than 900 parts per million, that is, a safe level, or where that is not possible, through the mechanism of filtration, for example, high efficiency particulate air, HEPA, filters. It provides that in circumstances where workplaces go over that level and there is no appropriate air filtration, 24 hours can be given to improve the situation. Where the level goes over 1,500 parts per million, a workplace could be shut down immediately by the Health and Safety Authority.

Ireland has laws setting minimum standards for clean air in chicken coops, but until now we have had nothing for schools, buses, pubs or offices. For more than a year, we have been calling for the Government to get serious on ventilation and air quality in the fight against Covid. The Government ignored those calls. In March of this year, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, expert group on ventilation report made a number of proposals, including recognising the role HEPA filters can play in our schools, especially in winter months. Again, those calls were ignored by the Government. Instead, it preferred to repeat the mantra that schools are safe as if it was some sort of magical spell from Harry Potter, which could prevent Covid from entering classrooms and hanging around in the air spreading among the entirely unvaccinated students.

People Before Profit has now done the job for the Government. We have produced this workplace ventilation Bill to finally establish a right to clean air and enforceable standards for schools, pubs, offices and all workplaces. This Bill establishes a right to clean air and makes that right tangible and enforceable. Some 150 years ago, we were fighting pandemics of cholera, typhoid and other diseases. Despite attempt after attempt, it was not until the issue of clean water was addressed that we were able to bring those diseases under control. Looking back, it seems obvious to us but at the time, many simply did not realise how polluted water could be the transmission belt for disease. Today, clean air is the modern challenge as we fight not only Covid, but other SARS and respiratory viruses. If we do not tackle ventilation and we do not ensure clean air in schools and other workplaces, then we will be doomed to repeat the doom loop of outbreaks and restrictions. If we put in the investment now, provide HEPA filters for every classroom and enforce CO2monitors and ventilation across the board, we can put ourselves in a much stronger position to fight this virus and future viruses.

The Government is reported as having said it will not oppose the Bill, which we obviously welcome but it must not leave it sitting on a shelf gathering dust. The Bill also needs to be backed up by funding. We cannot provide for funding in an Opposition Bill. The Government needs to follow the example of Germany or Australia in rolling out air filtration. It needs to increase funding for the Health and Safety Authority to properly enforce these standards, put HEPA filters into every classroom and public building and provide free FFP2 masks to encourage the use of these much more effective masks. I note that we, as Deputies, are provided with these much better and higher-quality masks free of charge, but not teachers, bartenders, bus drivers or other front-line workers.

We need action now to ensure clean air in schools and workplaces. HEPA filters can help clean the air, especially during colder days when it is simply not possible to have windows wide open all day. The NPHET expert group said so in March, the Department of Education acknowledged it in May and the EU and US centres for disease control have been saying it for months. Up until last night, the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was peddling the line on television that these filters were not recommended for schools. The Minister for trampolining seems to think that his training as a management consultant makes him more qualified than all those experts. It is an embarrassment. The truth is the Minister has lost the confidence of people, even Government Deputies and, it seems, his Taoiseach. It cannot be long before he faces-----


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