Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing this Bill to the House. When it comes to the Covid-19 response, we as a people wear masks, wash our hands, socially distance and abide by complete lockdowns. We have even paid for €9 meals, endured hotel quarantine, largely taken vaccinations and applied and used vaccine passports, yet we are where we are. We need to look at other solutions rather than extending the failed ones. We now know we have an airborne virus yet none of the focus of our Covid response has been on improving air quality or air filtration.
Why do we need this legislation? Last week, during a visit to a primary school I received an email from a primary school principal who outlined the current situation very well as follows:
I just walked past fourth class sitting in a room of barely 40 sq m, windows open, radiators hopping off the wall, children wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves, the temperature in this room 13.7o . Surely, we have to look at HEPA filters as a solution. Our board of management is very eager to purchase but the cost is a major problem. Please make representations on our behalf. Our children are going to have a miserable experience of school if we do not act quickly. December, January and February are going to be carnage at this rate.
In researching the topic of air filtration, I came across a study published on 22 September 2021. It investigated the removal of airborne SARS-CoV-2 and other microbial bioaerosols by air filtration on Covid-19 surge units. It is worth noting that this study has yet to be peer reviewed, but I believe its findings are worth exploring for application in both our healthcare and education settings. The researchers conducted a crossover study of portable air filtration in sterilisation devices in a pre-purposed surge Covid ward and surge ICU. They found that airborne SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the ward on all five days before activation of air-UV filtration, but on none of the five days where the air-UV filters were operational. SARS-CoV-2 was again detected on four of the five days when the filter was off. They concluded that these data demonstrate the feasibility of removing SARS-CoV-2 from the air of purposed surge wards and suggest that air filtration devices may help reduce the risk of hospital-acquired SARS-CoV-2.
Given all of the money spent during the course of the Government's response to dealing with the spread of an airborne virus, surely now one obvious place to direct our attention would be the improvement of air quality. It is but one measure of many choices not taken by this Government that could help. In general, the Government's approach to schools has been completely hypocritical. On 16 November, the Taoiseach said, "Public health advice has been consistent from the get-go that schools are safe places." That statement took a complete U-turn last night, just two weeks later, when the Taoiseach said, "Covid in schools has gone through the roof." Based on this alone, I believe an apology should be extended to the principal of CBS primary school in Wexford, Ms Vicky Barron, for her proactive approach and that of the board of management.
We need to consider better alternatives to having students and teachers sitting in the freezing cold during winter, in danger of catching pneumonia, never mind Covid. The need to introduce air filtration measures is obvious. Why has it taken so long to reach this point? Why are we now putting the burden of mask-wearing on small children, when the Government should instead be providing the funds to all schools and hospitals to install HEPA filtration systems so as to serve and prepare for the fifth inevitable surge of this virus in the future? In the same way, antigen testing should also have been rolled out a long time ago. Antigen testing should be free for everyone, in which case it could not be abused. Yesterday, I received a message from an in-house residential carer who is spending €25 per week on antigen tests. How many will do this? Not many. We spent €80 million plus on ventilators from which we got no benefit. There is a benefit in rolling out antigen tests, but the Government is choosing to be pound foolish and penny wise, a decision we as a nation will live to regret.
Following on from the delay in acknowledging antigen tests and the use of them as part of the armoury to fight this virus, the Government now says that to enter the country you must have a clear PCR test 72 hours in advance and a laboratory-conducted antigen test 48 hours in advance of arrival on this island. This morning, on the national airwaves, an assistant virologist at UCD, Dr. Gerald Barry, said that this is a pointless exercise; that it is just window dressing; that while the intention behind the antigen testing before flights is correct, the manner in which it is being done will not achieve the aim; that it is completely pointless to carry out an antigen test 48 hours in advance of travelling as a one-off test does not identify the virus; that a PCR test is probably better, but 72 hours in advance is too long a window; that there must be a greater emphasis on controlling the disease and that we need to dramatically ramp up our testing and tracing system to detect new cases and rapidly clamp down on them. This is not new. This has been said many times over the past 18 months on the floor of this House by many Opposition Deputies, but it is not happening. I am pretty sure we will not hear from Dr. Barry any time soon, as has been the case with other eminent medics with alternative views.
The installation of proper filtration in schools is also not new. The Government said it was looking into it. Surely, it is a more effective policy and far less divisive than forcing children to wear masks all day in school, not to mention that it only applies to half of the classroom if some of those children are not yet nine years old. Government cannot continue to say that we as a people, having returned to some semblance of normality in social interaction, are the reason we now have to endure more restrictions. Government needs to put up its hands and admit that it was wrong to remove contact tracing in schools and wrong not to ensure that the capacity was there for test, trace and isolate as the best measure to contain the spread. Government is wrong not to increase the ICU capacity to the level required to prevent further restrictions and lockdowns and, in being wrong, it needs the help of the people to get it right. Following on from the announcement yesterday with regard to travel requirements, the Government needs to hold up its hands and explain why an antigen test by way of proof of a person's Covid status, as opposed to his or her vaccine status, is sufficient to gain entry into this country but not sufficient to gain entry to a restaurant or any indoor setting deemed high-risk.