Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
We are 20 months into a global pandemic and the Government has introduced zero legislation on improving air quality or combating air pollution indoors. The Government has introduced CO2 monitors into schools in a half-arsed way as it shares them between the classes. No HEPA filters have been installed as a matter of course and there has been no legislation on them. This is despite the fact that NPHET's ventilation subgroup is in favour of HEPA filters and Professor John Wenger first called for them to be fitted in August 2020.
The Government's performance on this is in contrast with what has happened in other countries. Capitalist countries have dragged their feet on this in every country in the world but pressure has forced them to act in some countries. There is legislation for minimum standards for air quality indoors in Belgium and Japan and by law CO2 monitors have to be in place in pubs and restaurants in Belgium. The German Federal Government has spent €200 million on HEPA filters for schools. This is all in sharp contrast to the performance of the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party Government here.
Orla Hegarty from the department of architecture in University College Dublin has raised a point of information which is stark and which is worth pausing to think about. She says that 60% of people who have died from Covid in this State contracted the infection in one of just 400 buildings. That is a powerful piece of information. What would the position have been if legislation, CO2 monitors or HEPA filters had been in place in those 400 buildings? I am not saying by any means that none of those people would have died. I am also not saying, nor can I prove, that a majority of those people would not have died but it is reasonable to say that a significant number of those people would not have lost their lives had those safety measures been put in place.
Deputy Paul Murphy brought another piece of information to the discussion which is also worth pausing to think about. He pointed out that there is legislation in this country to regularise and standardise air conditions and levels of air safety and pollution in chicken coops. However, we do not have such legislation for buildings where people go and spend their working lives. Deputy Bríd Smith raised the point of parents voluntarily clubbing in to buy HEPA filters for their children's schools. That attitude can only be admired but it should not be necessary for them to do that.
I am also aware of a situation where parents in private fee-paying schools have clubbed together to pay for HEPA filters. In the majority of schools, parents may not be in a position financially to make sacrifices of that kind. Therefore, we have a two-tier education system and a two-tier society where some kids get treated better than other kids. That is not right and that is not the way that it should be.
An online survey asked employers about their experience of Covid-19 inspections. People had four options to choose from on the way in which Covid-19 inspectors had dealt with the question of ventilation and safety when inspecting their workplace. Some 37% said that they had not inspected the ventilation at all, 15% said that they had done it a bit, 2% said that they had done it in detail and 46% said, “What inspections?” That is a survey of 117 employers and it is online, but I do not take that as gospel. It is a straw in the wind, but it does indicate something. I am not surprised by it, given the tone that has been set by the Government about the relative importance of air pollution and air safety when dealing with an airborne disease. The point has been made by some people contributing to this debate outside of this House that expenditure on improving air quality is money well spent, because when Covid-19 is behind us, that will still have a use. It will stand to us. It will be of benefit into the dim and distant future. A total of 2.3 million people die globally every year from indoor air pollution. It is a good investment to invest in HEPA filters and other measures that improve air quality indoors.
I understand that the Government has indicated that it will not oppose the Bill and that the Bill will pass through the Dáil. I ask the Minister of State for clarification on that. If that is the position, something flows from that. The Government cannot allow a Bill calling for improved workplace ventilation in the middle of a global pandemic pass through the Dáil and then return to the issue in six, 12 or 18 months. If the Bill goes to Committee Stage, it must be dealt with in committee as a matter of urgency, priority and brought to the top of the agenda. It would be cynicism of the most extreme kind, which this Government is well capable of, but we are talking about life and death here - if the Bill was allowed to pass so that the Government does not look bad by opposing a workplace ventilation Bill, supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and I imagine pretty much every working person in this country, in order to shunt it off to a committee with an instruction to its Government committee members to kick it around and not let it go any further because the Government does not want this to progress any further. The Government has done this with so many other Bills. It cannot do that with this Bill. This is a matter of life and death. It is an urgent issue. If it passes this Stage, let it go to Committee Stage and be put to the top of the agenda immediately.