Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I welcome this Bill and commend Solidarity-People Before Profit Deputies on the work they have put into it. They have been strong campaigners on the issue of ventilation almost from the start, as many of us have also been. That is all the more reason it is impossible to understand the Government's attitude to ventilation and its central role in combating Covid.
The Bill is a very practical one. It does three main things. It provides a definition of fresh air based on CO2 levels in workplaces. It provides for health and safety inspections based on CO2 measurements and provides for improvement or prohibition notices. It also allows employees to request inspections. They are very basic provisions to safeguard workers but also to safeguard us all by ensuring workplaces are safer places. We have known for a very long time that Covid is an airborne virus. For that reason, we need to put a clear focus on ensuring air is made as clean as possible in all kinds of settings. That should be the advice for people in their own homes, in workplaces and especially in schools. There is no question but that we are paying a very high price, or more accurately, children in Ireland are paying a very high price, for the fact that the issue of ventilation has been largely ignored in schools. It is impossible to understand the reason for this.
A NPHET subgroup that was set up at the end of last year, comprising very eminent people with scientific and public health expertise, was asked to look at the whole issue of ventilation and the steps that could be taken to achieve cleaner air and address the issue of the airborne virus. In January of this year, the subgroup produced quite an extensive report which set out very clear recommendation that were unambiguous about the need to measure the cleanliness of the air based on CO2 readings and to follow through on putting in place mitigating measures to clean that air. It was very sensible, straightforward and practical. That report went to NPHET and there was essentially no response to it. The subgroup continued meeting and in March produced its second report. It again came to very clear conclusions and made very practical recommendations. It stated that ventilation is an important factor in reducing the risk of long-term airborne transmission of Covid and that it reduces the risk of superspreading events, of which we have had many. It stated ventilation is part of a layered strategy to reduce transmission.
It is annoying that when we raise issues like ventilation, standards for mask-wearing or antigen tests, the Government's response is always that ventilation is not a silver bullet. Nobody is saying it is. It is one of a number of tools that should be used. It just does not make sense; it is pure stupid not to use all the tools available to us. That is why it is so hard to understand how the Government has been so negligent on the issue of ventilation. The subgroup's report also talked about how measurements of CO2 levels in indoor air are the most effective method of identifying inadequate ventilation and how stand-alone HEPA filter devices can be and are useful in ensuring we have clean air in indoor settings. The subgroup called for guidelines and sectoral advice based on its expert examination of this issue. It also called for improvements in ventilation and indoor air quality in general because these make a very positive contribution to improving people's health and well-being anyway. Again, this is especially the case in school settings where there are so many different infections and viruses floating around. It is a common thing for young children in particular to be out sick on a regular basis. We also have a very high level of asthma in this country. Thus, in general and in normal times it makes sense to have air filters in our classrooms and that is why it would be such a good investment to do that. We have been told it would be possible to do that at a very small outlay. It has been estimated at about €12 million. Even if it is more than that, it makes absolute sense to do it. When you consider this in the context of the billions upon billions the country is spending in response to Covid, why is the Government not doing the sensible and practical things that can make such a difference?
By the time of the second report from the expert group, the Government had decided that a senior officials group would be established and that there would be wider consideration of issues relating to Covid by that group rather than NPHET. Thus the second report went to the senior officials group. Again, there was no response whatsoever to that apart from minor things about CO2 monitors in classrooms. I ask Deputies to look at how long it took to put those in place. They were not ready for the return of school in September, 18 months after the start of the pandemic, and even then many of them were faulty. The Government was given clear advice, as was NPHET, by people who know about these things. There is not that kind of expertise in NPHET and that must be recognised. Having got that expert advice on two occasions very clearly in the first quarter of this year, the Government proceeded to ignore it and as I said, we are paying a very big price for that.
The analogy made with the virus in the air is that it is very similar to what happens when somebody is in a room smoking - the smell of the smoke goes all around the room or all around the building. You must get clean air in to remove that. That is the simple analogy and the message that has been sent out, certainly in the UK. There is NHS messaging that explains that to people. Why are we not doing that? The key issues are the enforcement of good air quality, the need to set standards for CO2 monitors and air purifiers and the importance of clear public health advice. We have had none of those so far. I do not know why the Government is ignoring the level of clear advice from international agencies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I welcome this Bill and support it wholeheartedly.