Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank Deputies for the contributions to the debate. I welcome the strong support for the Bill and for taking action on the crucial issue of ventilation to prevent the spread of Covid and to give workers the right to clean air.
I need to address some of the smaller questions that came up from Opposition Deputies first and then go to the question of the Government Members. A number of Deputies raised the concern that schools would not be covered by the Bill. I assure them that schools are definitely workplaces. Teachers are not volunteers; they work. Therefore, schools are definitely covered by the Bill.
The second question raised was about who will pay. Of course, as Deputies will be aware, as an Opposition party we cannot bring forward a Bill that imposes any costs, either on the State or on businesses, and we are not able to outline who should pay. However, I am happy to speak about who should pay. Certainly, in schools and in public buildings, the State should pay. The cost is not massive, as it is an estimated €50 million to cover pubs, restaurants, schools and public buildings. It is €12 million for schools alone. This is money that will save lives, will save health but also even save money in terms of the impact on the health service. Second, we think that grants should be made available for small businesses to enable them to provide CO2 monitors in all pubs and restaurants where people can see them so that workers can see them as well as customers and, where necessary, HEPA filters.
While we welcome the fact that the Government is saying it will not oppose the Bill, let us get into what that actually means.
I underscore the fact that it is scandalous that, almost two years into a pandemic, an Opposition party, People Before Profit, is forced to bring forward legislation to state that workers should have the right to clean air. That is scandalous. The Government has stated there is already a legal requirement for sufficient fresh air. That is true and I discussed that with the Minister of State, Deputy English, yesterday in a committee meeting. The central point is that there is no definition of that. There is no definition as to how many parts per million of CO2 are required. It is, effectively, meaningless.
I was a little concerned that in the final response from the Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, said that ventilation is already adequately addressed in the protocol. The Minister of State, Deputy English, early referenced the protocol, guidance and so on. The central problem in that regard is all of it is optional. It is guidance; it is not mandatory. Some of what was included by the Department of Education was wrong, in that it referred to 1,500 parts per million of CO2 rather than 900 parts per million. The crucial and central issue is that a legally binding standard of air quality is required.
I discussed these issues with the senior Minister, Deputy Varadkar, who, three or four months ago, did not seem to know we had no binding legislation. His absence from this debate is concerning and I wonder about the priority that is placed by the Government on this issue.
It is clear that over the summer, the Government put all of its eggs in the vaccination basket. Vaccination is absolutely crucial, there is no question about it, but things such as ventilation, testing and contact tracing were cut. No serious action was taken to increase intensive care unit capacity to withstand further surges. The Government sat back and hoped the vaccines would do all the work. Instead of that, we need a vaccine-plus strategy, which includes vaccination, ventilation and vastly increased testing. We need booster vaccines as soon as possible but we also must push for the lifting of the patents so the whole world can be vaccinated to lessen the chance of more and deadly variants.
Ventilation is an important measure of prevention, along with hand hygiene and mask wearing. We must also step up the use of FFP2 and other quality masks that give far more protection. We should provide them free of charge. Vastly increased testing, including free antigen tests, and proper backward and forward contact tracing are also crucial to help us bring the outbreaks that take place under control.
I will make some points in response to the central point of the Government. We welcome that the Government is not opposing the Bill but we have been in that situation for other Bills in the past. We have managed to get other Bills passed on Second Stage. The Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill is currently languishing, three or four years since it was passed on Second Stage, and nothing has happened. Children still do not have the right to objective sex education because the religious ethos of schools can still stand in the way. The Planning and Development (Climate Emergency Measures) (Amendment) Bill, intended to leave fossil fuels in the ground, has been blocked by a money message. We are open to meeting with representatives of the Department. We would be happy to do it and to consider how this can go forward. That is not a problem. However, we should be forgiven for having some scepticism. We will keep the pressure on to demand that we get the change we need. The Government often feels under pressure on an issue and decides it cannot block a Bill at this stage but finds a different way to block it.
We are not precious about how this is legally implemented. If it could be done rapidly through regulation; we would be open to that. The bottom-line point is the necessity for legally enforceable standards for air quality that are then checked and observed, with sanctions and consequences for work places that do not meet those standards. Those are the bottom-line points that are non-negotiable.
I noted that the Minister of State, Deputy English, earlier spoke about the danger of overburdening the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. I would pose that in a different way. The point is that the HSA is under-resourced. I discussed that matter with the Minister yesterday and made the point that a budget 2022 expenditure report claimed that the HSA now has greatly increased staff but it was revealed in March that the HSA hired only one extra inspector in 2020 and three extra inspectors this year, giving it a total of 70 inspectors. That is completely inadequate. We saw the failures of that in terms of the meat plants. We can see open outbreaks in the meat plants now. The truth is that the amount of total funding going to the HSA has actually fallen when one takes into account income from sources other than direct funding from the Department.
It is a failure of the Government not to have moved to introduce legislation on the issue of ventilation. That has had an impact in terms of the public health messaging. We all have been in pubs, restaurants and hotels, and on public transport, where the right things are being done in terms of hand sanitising, where there is hand sanitiser all over the place and everything is being sanitised, but none of the windows is open. That is a real failure and the public health messaging must change. Covid was, in general, handled disastrously in Britain. One thing that can be said about the messaging of the NHS is that it places the correct emphasis on the issue of airborne transmission. It has pictures and diagrams to show people how Covid hangs around and, therefore, the importance of ventilation.
In some contributions, I sensed a suggestion that high-efficiency particulate absorbing, HEPA, filters are an alternative to masks or to having windows open. It is certainly not as simple as that. These are layered measures that must be used collectively to improve ventilation. We are generally talking about these things happening in addition to mask-wearing but that is particularly the case when we are talking about schools, for example, and cold temperatures. That is where the advice of the expert group came in. The windows do not have to be open as much or for as long because the HEPA filters are there in the context of very cold weather.
I welcome the Government's statement that it will not oppose this Bill. We will try to push forward and make sure this happens as soon as possible because we cannot delay in a pandemic. However, that is in contrast with the responses from the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, just last night on RTÉ. He continues to hold an incredible position. He is going to follow the advice of those who are not experts on the question of ventilation. He is going to ignore the advice of all those who are experts on the question of ventilation and is not going to act on the question of HEPA filters. The National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, expert group on ventilation stated in March that HEPA filters "may be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation". The Department of Education, in May of this year, stated, "Where the practical measures for the deployment of good ventilation practices have been undertaken, and poor ventilation continues to exist in a particular room/area, air cleaners may be considered as an additional measure in conjunction with other methods of ventilation that are available." It suggested that in such a scenario, a room-air cleaner with HEPA filter should be considered. It seems to me there is a point about costs here. It is a very small amount of money but the Government does not want to go there. The consequence is that schools that can scrape together the money to put HEPA filters in place can provide them for their students and those without the money simply cannot provide them. That is wrong. The Government does not have to wait for Committee Stage discussions or anything else. It could move on that tomorrow and provide HEPA filters for every classroom in the State.