Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
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-----
I will focus on the schools because well over a year ago I started questioning the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, about what was going on in schools. I did so because I was personally involved with a number of teachers who were in a group called the Forgotten Families. They were teachers who were vulnerable at school and who stayed at home to avoid Covid because of their vulnerability. They offered their time and services to do online teaching for children who had to stay at home because of vulnerability in their households. This group was completely ignored by the Department of Education, which continually told the parents that they must send their children to school, even though there were vulnerable members of the family in the house. The teachers themselves were constantly being checked and rechecked by Medmark and told they had to go back to school and teach and that there was no problem in the classrooms. One of these women, who is a personal friend of mine, went back to school with all her vulnerability and within two weeks she got Covid. She now suffers from long Covid and only two days ago she told me that she thinks she will never teach again. She is extremely weak and she does not have the energy to concentrate or think much. What a tragedy it is that the Irish education system has lost such a wonderful teacher and what a personal tragedy for her that her entire career has been wiped out.
That happened because there was an attempt, as Deputy Paul Murphy said, to create a mantra that somehow schools were magically safe and that they were bubbles of protection from a pandemic that existed nowhere else. That has been blown out of the water. In the last two weeks we have seen the numbers of cases among children at 20 times what they were in the last year. That is because we have allowed the situation to get out of control and because we have said that Covid comes from the community and not the schools. Schools are in our community and are part of it. As children go to school they also come home from school and bring the virus back into the house. This has been ignored to the point of the type of tragedy I have just outlined. If there is one teacher like my friend there are more and they are all over the country. We need to speak out for them and for the children and their parents who this morning faced a stressful situation at the school gates.
Principals got a letter late yesterday to tell them that from now on masking of nine to 12-year-olds is mandatory and that they were to implement that overnight. They were also told that if there were vulnerable children they could get a doctor's note. How does one get a doctor's note overnight? How does a principal who is trying to manage hundreds of nine- to 12-year-old children and their stressed-out parents implement a policy of mandatory masking of that nature without giving them time to convince the kids? They should have been given time to bring in the older sisters and brothers of those kids to show them how to mask and to explain that they have to do it to protect each other. The Department of Education has made a bags of dealing with Covid in the schools and I say that without any qualms whatsoever. The vast majority of people have a distaste for politicians who pretend that what is staring them in the face is not staring them in the face. To repeat over and over that schools are safe when the dogs in the street know they are not is a real kick in the face to the population.
It has been said already that HEPA filters are not by themselves a method to get rid of Covid. Rather, they are part of a suite of measures that must be introduced. When Covid broke out and when we were looking at what we could do, we knew that 80% of our schools were not properly ventilated. HEPA filters do not cost a king's ransom. Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy got a figure for our alternative budget of €12 million to fit a HEPA filter system in every classroom in the country. If that is the case then why are we not spending that money to help protect children, teachers and their families from the spread of the virus? I will quote from the expert group on the role of ventilation in reducing the transmission of Covid from 2 March 2021:
Stand-alone HEPA filter devices can be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation [i.e. 80% of our schools]. They are an easy-to-apply and cost-effective short term mitigation measure.
It went on to say they can be "useful in reducing airborne transmission" and that important steps need to be taken now to prepare for the autumn and the winter. The expert group told us that back in March but this country and Government chose to ignore that advice. Children, their parents, principals and teachers are paying a hefty price for that.
As has been said, I hope the Government does not oppose this Bill but rather pushes it through quickly. The Government should ensure that, like has been done in other countries, it spends a few bob and provides the schools with HEPA filters. I know of one school in my constituency where the principal used a bit of excess from its budget to fit HEPA filters in every classroom but not all principals have that budget excess. I know of other schools where parents are pooling money to buy HEPA filters for the classrooms that their children attend. Why is the Government failing people in this way? This needs to be addressed with urgency,
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.
I thank Deputy Paul Murphy and his colleagues for introducing the legislation. The Government is not opposing the Bill, which seeks to amend the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 to provide for a definition of sufficient fresh air bases on CO2levels in the workplace as an emergency Covid-19 prevention measure. The Government supports the principle behind the Bill and it will work with all involved on it.
Existing occupational safety and health legislation already creates a requirement for employers to ensure that sufficient fresh air ventilation is provided in enclosed places of work. It is acknowledged that close-range transmission can cause Covid-19 infection and that is why it is essential to adhere to public health advice on vaccination, physical distancing, wearing masks and coverings, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and, importantly, staying at home if one has any symptoms of Covid-19 or are feeling unwell.
The Government’s expert group on ventilation, in its second report published in March 2021, concluded that ventilation is an important factor in reducing the risk of transmission of Covid-19 particularly in enclosed places. Providing fresh air through ventilation and air filtration measures where necessary can provide practical and effective ways to facilitate clean air in enclosed workplaces. The objective of this proposed amendment is to put an additional focus on the importance of ventilation in workplaces, especially in the context of mitigating against the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace.
From the outset, the Government has committed itself to protecting workers from Covid-19. The development of the work safely protocol and the ongoing updating of it has been carried out as a partnership between Government, employer representatives and employee representatives in conjunction with key State agencies such as the HSE, the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as well as my own Department.
The work safely protocol sets out the most up-to-date public health advice and measures to be taken in workplaces to prevent and to minimise the spread of Covid-19. The protocol has a specific section on ventilation that includes guidance on how to increase ventilation and on how to use CO2monitors to identify poorly ventilated enclosed areas. Many businesses and workplaces are already using these devices to identify poorly ventilated areas, but it should be stressed that a CO2monitor is simply a proxy for measurements of air circulation. It does not detect Covid-19.
While the Government can accept the principle underpinning the Bill, certain legal and practical aspects of it will require greater consideration between now and Committee Stage. I am happy to engage with Deputy Paul Murphy and his colleagues on that as well. I will touch on these briefly. On the legal considerations, legal advice will be needed as to which part of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 is the most appropriate to amend. My officials have advised that it may be possible to achieve a speedier amendment by way of amending the section on ventilation in the general application regulations under the Act This will also enable further amendments made as necessary and could be a vehicle for introducing a more long-term focused approach on ventilation across our workplaces.
In the area of potentially unintended consequences, again I stress that Government supports the principle and objective of the Bill. However, some proposals require further practical consideration. With regard to the use of enforcement measures, such as improvement notices and prohibition notices, such measures are provided for under the 2005 Act and enforcement under the Act should be in line with an existing approach to occupational safety and health and, indeed, with the approach currently being taken to inspections of the work safely protocol.
The Bill, as currently drafted, is overly prescriptive. It might not be practical to use primary legislation to deal with every place of work. We believe that could be achieved in regulations. Workplaces in various sectors differ greatly from each other. The impact of CO2readings would have to be judged in the context of different workplaces with different workforces at different times. The Government’s expert group on ventilation also did not recommend the use of CO2measurements as an indicator of ventilation when there are CO2sources, other than people, present in the workplace. An example of this would be a kitchen setting or a setting where HEPA air filtration is in use.
The approach in the Bill, as currently drafted, particularly the prescriptive limit value suggested, could lead to unnecessary closures of workplaces based on a high CO2reading, especially where those workplaces operate in older buildings, such as schools, hospitals, etc, even when other mitigating measures are in place. It is also important not to create the impression or the expectation among workers that a particular CO2reading is the only or the main factor in mitigating against the spread of Covid-19 in a workplace. It has to be judged in the context of the nature of the workplace and other factors, including the infection prevention and control measures in place. The measurement of CO2levels has been recommended by the Government’s expert group on ventilation as an effective method for identifying poorly ventilated multi-occupant and enclosed indoor areas. The work safely protocol sets out how these monitors should be used in the workplace. It is clear, however, that a high CO2monitor reading is not a proxy for the risk of exposure to Covid-19 but rather for identifying poor ventilation. It is important that this is fully appreciated by those reading CO2levels as well as the fact that other sources of CO2can legitimately exist in certain workplaces.
The legislation does not provide for a HSA inspector to form an opinion as to whether an indoor workplace location has adequate ventilation. This will cause difficulties when other sources of CO2exist from workplace activities. The Bill as drafted is well-intentioned, but it will need some re-drafting to ensure it does not inadvertently deter employers and businesses from incorporating Covid-19 mitigations into their overall workplace risk assessment policies and practices.
Ventilation in workplaces needs to be looked at beyond Covid-19, as said by Deputy Barry and others already. This is an opportunity to put in place measures to bring about a longer term, sustainable and holistic approach to workplace ventilation. Workplace is required and I would strongly argue that this flexibility can be found in regulations as opposed to primary legislation.
Regarding the role of inspection bodies and the Health and Safety Authority, although the Bill might appear to offer a pragmatic approach, I am sure the Deputy will recognise that it is not possible for every single inspectorate to monitor every workplace or carbon dioxide monitor in the country. While I want to ensure the objective of the Bill can be delivered in an effective and efficient way, I also want to avoid creating an unbalanced burden on the Health and Safety Authority to the detriment of its other work areas. Given the sheer number of workplaces covered by this proposed legislation, care will be needed in determining it will work in practice so that only the most high-risk settings in the case of breaches require an on-site inspection. We can work through that with the Deputy and address the regulations.
The Government supports the objective of this Bill. I assure the Deputy that my officials and I will work with him to determine the best approach to achieve these objectives. My officials will engage with the Health and Safety Authority to determine the best mechanisms to deliver the objectives of the Bill, including carrying out inspections and compliance checks across workplaces to determine the potential impact on the Health and Safety Authority and how impacts can be addressed. Officials from the Health and Safety Authority and my Department would like the opportunity to meet Deputy Paul Murphy prior to Committee Stage to discuss the Bill and how its objectives can be achieved speedily and implemented in an effective and practical way. I hope the Deputy takes that as a commitment to genuinely work with him on this. It is not a case of sending it to the committee and setting it to one side. We believe it is worth working through this legislation to get it right and to maybe focus on regulations as a quicker way to do it. I will contact the Deputy this afternoon to organise that and to move this forward.
I am glad the Government is not opposing our Bill on ventilation and the need for clean air in workplaces, but we need more than that. We need critical urgency in taking on this issue and legislating for a proper level of ventilation, air filtration and clean air standards. There are two ways to respond to a pandemic. It is understandable when we are facing a new situation that there are many knee-jerk responses, we do not quite know what we are dealing with, and emergency measures taken at short notice are inevitable. We are two years into the pandemic and we have learned a lot. Critically, we now know that this is an airborne disease. The question of how we prevent the transmission of Covid-19 through the air is critical. To put it in stark and simple terms, unless we address that, we are not going to bring this pandemic to an end. The doom loop of restrictions, widespread illness and the threat of our hospitals being overrun will continue.
The facts are stark. I commend Orla Hegarty for pulling together the facts about this and championing the arguments. She puts it starkly when she says that, given that we now know that this is an airborne disease, the way to tackle it is not about what individuals do but about what happens in buildings. There is a stark concentration of superspreading events in particular types of buildings. More than half of the people who died as a result of Covid-19 were infected in just 0.3% of buildings. That is really stark. That allows us to target our approach to dealing with the virus, if we absorb the significance of that fact. Other facts further corroborate this point. Half of workplace outbreaks have been in just 150 buildings. Infection in overcrowded private homes is twice the rate of in uncrowded homes.
One in four school buildings has had a Covid-19 index case in the past four months. That nails the ridiculous lie that the Government persisted with, as Deputy Bríd Smith and others said, that schools were not a vector for Covid transmission. It was ridiculous and everybody knew it. We knew that overcrowded spaces of any kind were places where transmission was taking place, yet the Government persisted with this nonsense. There now has been a swing to the opposite end of the spectrum where all the burden of trying to address the crisis is being loaded onto the schools. It is all about the schools now. It was apparently not happening in schools at all before and now it is all about the schools. I support the idea that children should wear masks. However, I do not think it is sensible to talk about excluding kids from school, if they are distressed by that, have not been fully convinced, do not fully understand, or are caught between parents and the school when their parents are resistant. I would drop any discussion of excluding kids from school and putting that on teachers.
Now we have finally admitted that schools are a setting in which the virus transmits and is likely to transmit, for the obvious reasons. There are large numbers of people in overcrowded buildings. Many of them are poor quality buildings and, disgracefully, many are prefabricated units. They are some of the most overcrowded classrooms in Europe. Is it a surprise that airborne disease is likely to transmit in those kinds of environments? Of course it is not.
It happens in other similar environments, often in the face of Government denial for a long time. Deputy Bríd Smith has just given me some facts she got from Orla Hegarty last night, which underline this. There is currently a meat plant outbreak with 240 cases of infections, as there have been throughout the pandemic. They are closed, overcrowded environments with poor ventilation. There are currently 52 nursing home outbreaks. One home has 64 infections. Fifty-three children have been hospitalised in the past two weeks, a number which has more than doubled in one month. Cases among children are 20 times what they were last year. It is all happening in certain types of buildings which are overcrowded, have poor ventilation, no air filtration, and so on. Orla Hegarty points out that in 1918, during the Spanish flu, Chicago suppressed the pandemic by making ventilation a condition of trading in workplaces, during a terrible pandemic that claimed 30 million lives globally.
Deputy Paul Murphy's analogy is absolutely right. He stated that addressing the lack of clean water was critical to wiping out certain types of disease. Even here in Ireland, tuberculosis was addressed by the regulation, to some degree, of overcrowded in housing. Tuberculosis was rampant in overcrowded conditions, in other words, among the poor in overcrowded, poor quality housing. Is what needs to be done, how urgent it is, and that we have the science to do it starting to get through to the Government?
It is not just about what the health professionals say. If it is in certain types of buildings with poor ventilation, air filtration and so on, we need to listen to the people who know about buildings. It is about how to manage the transmission of air within buildings and there are people who know this - people like architects, people like Orla Hegarty and people who have developed air filtration systems that can filter the molecules that carry Covid-19.
Against that background, what the Minister said last night on television was simply unbelievable. He was asked why HEPA filters should not be put in schools. They are not very expensive. We could put them in every single school in the country for €12 million. Germany has spent €200 million on HEPA filters. He said "No", because of what our advice is telling us. I do not know what exactly his advice is telling him but he said that we are not doing it. We will instead open the windows in the midst of winter. Some of the stuff that was sent out by the Minister for Education on ventilation and opening windows in the depths of winter is unbelievable. One piece of advice stated that if it was really cold, teachers should open the window slightly near where the radiator is. Our kids have a choice between freezing in the cold or getting Covid-19 in overcrowded situations.
This is not directly to do with air filtration and ventilation, but added to this issue is the failure to maintain contact tracing in schools. That is, of course, linked to the understaffing and resourcing of public health teams to follow it up. That is why the Government did not do continue with contact tracing. It had nothing to do with any public health advice. It was because we do not have proper public health teams to follow up. We also do not have temperature checks. Why are there not temperature checks in schools? When you go to certain radio stations in this city to do interviews, there are temperature checks on the way in. Why do we not have them in schools? Critically, why do we not deal with overcrowding in schools?
Healthcare and hospitals are the other big issue. One of the worst hit groups are healthcare workers, who we need to combat this pandemic, and it is precisely because many of our hospital buildings are poorly ventilated and old. They need refurbishment. Our healthcare workers do not have proper protection. I hope the Minister for Health gets the message and progresses this Bill as soon as possible because if we do not address this issue we will not get on top of Covid-19.
The issue of adequate ventilation in the workplace is extremely important. I thank Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing this legislation forward. The Bill aims to give workers the right to request an inspection of their workplace by the HSA to verify sufficient levels of fresh air. I have no doubt that the right to clean air would be viewed by most people as a fair and reasonable right that should be afforded to every worker. It is not always possible to achieve this with open windows and doors. In Belmullet last Friday, I could not physically open my front door due to the storm. What are schools and workplaces supposed to do in that situation? It is bonkers.
A similar approach has already been taken in Belgium, where a minimum standard for air quality is set. This was proposed in 2019, prior to the Covid outbreak. Workers should have the right to expect that the air in their place of work is clean. This has taken on new meaning and significance with the onset of the pandemic. We have known for over a year that Covid is an airborne virus and that clean air is crucial in preventing its spread. This has made measures such as ventilation and air filtration crucial in any serious attempt to tackle transmission. I remember the importance of ventilation being discussed in this House as far back as September 2020 in relation to the safety of workers in meat processing plants.
There is a lot I could say about schools. This is also an issue in third level institutions and right through our education system. I commend those who have done everything in their power to keep schools open and as safe as possible. It is atrocious that, even at this stage, the Government is still not admitting fully that Covid is transmitted in schools. I was reminded this morning of exactly this time last year and the issue with Claremorris Boys National School. There was a dogmatic approach by the Minister for Education and the Department in castigating the school and its board of management because there were high Covid levels within the school and they needed to close for their own safety. This is symptomatic of the relationship between the Minister, the Department and the boards of management of the schools. It is not right that parents and teachers are treated with such disrespect. Now there are nine-year-olds on the battleground of Covid. This did not happen by accident. This is happening because the Government has been reactive and in denial of the situation within schools.
I will read out a letter from Ellen. She says:
... I'm a student at [I will not say what the college is]. In college the policy is to leave doors and windows open during the lessons for covid prevention. While this is sound in theory, in practice it is preventing myself and other students from learning.
I have an autoimmune condition and am autistic. I'm often painfully cold in class and cannot focus. I'm an art student and my hands are so cold that I often can no longer hold my pencil and have to leave class to go to buy a cup of tea to warm up. It is nearly December and it is freezing. Often my classmates and I are shivering and have to wear coats, hats or gloves in class.
Leaving the doors open means that we have the noise of outside where the children of [the school next door] are screaming and shouting, and the noise of students and cleaners in the hallways. This makes it impossible for autistic students like myself to focus in class.
Unfortunately the college doesn't have sufficient heating in all classrooms, especially the old buildings to combat this. This is not unique to [my school], a lot of schools in Ireland are in old, hard to heat buildings. The teachers cannot close doors or windows as if a classmate tests positive for covid they must do a report and disclose if the doors and windows were open in the classroom.
It seems there is nothing that the college can do, as the policy of leaving doors and windows open even in winter is in your hands.
The cases may be going up but the temperatures are going down. This policy needs to be re-examined as my right to education and the rights of other students who are ill or likewise disabled are being taken away.
I urge you to reconsider this policy and give me back my right to an education.
That is from an autistic young person who is telling it exactly how it is. I do not want the Minister for Health to respond to me but it is important that he examines this legislation, takes it on board and listens to students and teachers when they send messages like this. What is happening is just not sustainable.
Covid has made us all rethink the way we do business. It has resulted in major reliance on video calls and remote working, but there are workplaces for which other measures are needed to work safely. Ventilation and clean air is a key factor in ensuring the ability to work safely in this time of Covid. Our schools are an example of this. Many schools are too old to allow for significant ventilation or for various reasons opening windows may not be a ready option. Since the onset of this pandemic last year, we have been asking the Minister for Education to address the need for ventilation and clean air in our schools. Instead of taking the steps needed to adequately address this, children were sent back into school with no mitigation measures, no filtration in classrooms and contact tracing has since ended. Cases of Covid have now increased significantly in schools and since contact tracing was stopped the level of infection has more then trebled among primary school age children. Overnight, schools have gone from being so safe that contact tracing was not needed to needing children to wear masks to keep safe.
When we appealed for ventilation measures for schools, the response from the Government was largely to open windows and not to invest in HEPA filtration. HEPA filters actively remove contaminants from the air, while the CO2 monitors that the Minister has given us reassurances about only monitor the quality of air. They do not improve it. Now we hear of instances of kids sitting in freezing cold classrooms where they can neither stay comfortable nor concentrate effectively on their lessons. There is no need for this. It is just the result of a penny-pinching measure that lets down our children and teachers. It dismisses the recommendation of the Government's expert group on ventilation, which in March stated that these devices "may be useful in reducing airborne transmission in spaces with insufficient ventilation." The Minister for Health must act now. If he wants to keep our schools functioning, the time for dithering and indecision has passed.
The issue is not confined to schools alone, however. This Bill seeks to establish enforceable standards for ventilation in all workplaces to help the fight against Covid-19.
Meat factories were at the forefront of concerns in the early days of the Covid outbreak. We must learn from that. Any measure that empowers employees with concerns to request an inspection of their workplace by the HSE to check the air quality is welcome.
If the Government wishes to ensure schools are as safe as possible, its focus should be on bringing back fully public health's tracing teams and providing filtration devices for the classrooms that need them. The well-being of children must be invested in immediately.
We have long known that Covid is an airborne virus. The response from the Minister and the Department on the issue of ventilation has been nothing short of useless. Yesterday evening, I watched the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, admit on RTÉ television that he took advice from one group, namely, the antimicrobial resistance and infection control, AMRIC, team, but has ignored the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, as well as NPHET's own expert group on ventilation, which has also recommended the use of ventilation systems.
The provision of CO2 monitors is insufficient to ensure clean air in classrooms. Simply monitoring the air quality is not good enough. Many classrooms, particularly those in older buildings, do not have adequate ventilation. Some smaller education resource rooms do not even have windows. Children and teaching staff are freezing in classrooms, wearing hats and scarves during the school day while the windows are open to try to keep them safe. I refer to the increase in heating costs. Schools will be really struggling at the end of the year to find the money to pay those bills.
It should not have to be this way. It is clear that HEPA filtration has a key role to play in ensuring classrooms have clear air. Whereas CO2 can monitor air quality, HEPA filters actively remove contaminants from the air. All present know there is a two-tier education system. This morning, I received an email and a photograph from a school which proudly announced that the parents have bought a filtration system for every single class in the school. However, there is another school in my area that does not have a single filtration system. Some parents are buying them for single classrooms. That is not what we need in society. A two-tier education system is being created. It has always been such a system and that needs to end. I urge the Minister to go to his colleagues who are in charge of education and demand that these filtration systems be installed. We already have the costings. We know other countries are doing this. It is important it is done for children and staff.
I will take a slightly different angle on this issue. A principal recently stated:
Not only are school leaders asked to be 'Public Health', magically create subs out of fresh air we now are asked to ensure all pupils from 3rd class up wear masks? This is also not law? Schools are now caught in the crossfire once again. Colleagues in other schools have received vicious emails already warning schools not to implement this.
(Yesterday we had 16 staff members absent, we were one staff member away from closing a class, today 12 staff members and tomorrow it will already be 13).
The faces of my work colleagues say enough. They are drained, broken and deflated.
I listened to the other speakers on this issue. They are right. It is ludicrous that the Government had more than two years to plan for this and for HEPA air filters. Children are being expected to sit in school with the windows wide open and the heating on, or possibly not on because the school cannot afford it. The Government is pitting parents against pupils and principals and vice versa.It is victimising children. Those who have will be segregated from those who have not. Children can be vicious at times. This issue will be at the root of many instances of bullying in schools.
Many parents have contacted me in the past two days. They are dumbfounded. In my area of east Cork, instances have been reported of children not being allowed to wear extra clothing in their classrooms. They had to wear the school uniform. That has been a strict rule in certain schools. That causes problems.
The Government needs to act with urgency. I urge it to take the common-sense approach and get HEPA filters into classrooms. Let us close school windows again. Please God, let us preserve everything and go back to a small bit of normality. There are many young children who will not have the capability to wear a mask because of a medical condition. That will cause additional strain. I urgently appeal to the Government to do the right thing and the common-sense thing, which is to start putting in air filters and closing windows. Let children get on with school, let parents get on with life and let teachers and principals get on with teaching.
Last night, the Minister was asked about HEPA filters in schools. He pointed to opening windows and doors. Teachers have contacted me. I was sent a photograph of a teacher who was teaching in a school last week and it was 3°C in the classroom. The Government was asleep during the summer and for the past six months when filters and CO2 monitors should have been put in. The whole area of area filtration in schools should have been tackled. For 12 months we were told schools were safe, but then at 6 p.m. yesterday evening we were told that, by this morning, every child would need to wear a face mask. Where is the consultation with unions and parents? Every parent wants to ensure the safety of his or her child and for the child to be able to attend school, but the Government has done nothing for the past 12 months to ensure schools are made safe. It is talking about personal responsibility, but where is the responsibility of the Government? Did it sit down and discuss the matter with the unions?
I am on the board of management of a primary school. On Monday, we had a meeting at which we had to cancel the school nativity play and move it online, but 50,000 people can go into a stadium and watch a match. That is the complete chaos the Government is overseeing. The problem is the measures do not make sense. People will follow the public health advice but the problem is the Minister is not making sense and neither are the decisions of the Government.
In the context of keeping workplaces safe, I believe that when a person is told to self-isolate, he or she should be able to access the Covid payment. However, what is happening is that such people are being asked to show their positive result. The problem is it could be two or three days before they receive that result. All present are aware of the current waiting times for testing and getting the results back. Ordinary people cannot afford to be down two, three or four days' wages while waiting on results. If we want to keep workplaces safe, we need people to self-isolate while awaiting a test or results and they will only do that if they can afford it. Many people cannot afford to go without their wages.
At its core, the Bill will give workers the right to fresh air and require employers to ensure proper ventilation is in place to enforceable standards to help in the ongoing fight against Covid. We have known for more than a year that Covid is an airborne virus and that clean air is crucial in preventing its spread, making measures such as ventilation and air filtration critical. This is of extreme importance currently in school communities but the response of the Minister, Deputy Foley, and her Department to ventilation has, at best, been sluggish. It is now crunch time when it comes to schools. Sinn Féin is calling on the Minister to act urgently to provide HEPA filtration devices in every classroom that requires them. The Minister has dithered and delayed on ventilation for too long and that must end now.
The provision of CO2 monitors is not sufficient to ensure clean air in classrooms. Monitoring the air quality is not good enough. Many classrooms do not have adequate ventilation and some classrooms do not even have windows. Children and teaching staff are freezing in their classrooms, wearing hats and scarves and now masks during the school day while windows are open in an effort to keep them safe. It should not be like this. It does not have to be like this. HEPA filtration has a key role to play in ensuring classrooms have clean air because they actively remove contaminants from the air. The Minister keeps telling us she wants schools to be kept open and functioning well, but she has to be willing to do what it takes to make that happen. She has to be willing to put money where her mouth is, and that means HEPA filters in classrooms. We hear this new mantra of "suites of public health measures", but in reality what we are seeing is more slapdash lack of leadership in schools and principals operating in a vacuum while parents are at their wits' end.
It truly seems remarkable that we are in this House today debating the introduction of legislation that relates to common sense when most of all, and this truly strikes me, we see the Government parties' failure again and again to deal with the most obvious during this pandemic.
We all hoped that we would not be in this space but, to use that terrible term, we are where we are. We cannot do anything about the past mistakes. I think it is fair enough to hold the Government accountable and say that opportunities were missed. There has been probably some fly commentary on ventilation. We all know at this stage what the European and the US centres for disease control have said. We know NPHET's expert group on ventilation has spoken about the necessity and the requirement, and that what we basically need at this point in time is HEPA ventilation systems. We just need filtration and ventilation as best as can be done. We know that CO2monitors do not do the business required. They are a simple test. The fact is we do not even have the roll-out of them that was required. These are the small things. These are the tools. None of them are magic bullets but we need to get them enacted as soon as possible.
Other people have spoken as well that there has been a difficulty with and a lack of clarity in messaging, and that is accepting that this is not simple for the Government or anybody else. The fact is, initially last week, we had the NPHET guidelines, and then we had the failure of any commentary by the Government for a period that allowed annoyance to build up and people to be unsure, particularly those who do not make a detailed study of gov.ieor read the ins and outs of letters sent to Government from NPHET or any of those things. Why should they? They are just getting on with their lives and just want a clear message, but it is beyond that. We know the situation we are in now. We need the Government to step up to the mark because we have this scenario concerning guidelines around events that people need to think about going to. We already know there is an impact on certain businesses, if we are talking about taxi drivers. We are talking about this as we see reductions in the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS. We know the difficulties around the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. All of this needs to be revisited.
If we are going to be serious, then we need to play our part around the TRIPS waiver. We need to ensure we have the capacity on testing, vaccinations and boosters. We need to do it on an international basis so we need to play our part, and the European Commission has to play its part. Then it is the TRIPS waiver and whatever mechanisms are necessary to ensure all of us are safe.
I commend Deputy Paul Murphy and his group on bringing forward this Bill. It is very timely but it is not the first time the Deputy has brought up this matter. In fact, if memory services me correctly, this matter was brought up as far back as the Covid committee, which was summer of 2020. This is something, therefore, that group has pushed for for a long time. The reason they and others have done so is because this is a real measure that will help reduce and suppress the transmission of this virus. It is not a reactive or panicked measure. It is a forward-looking proactive measure that will help, if implemented in schools, workplaces, public buildings and buildings used by the public, to reduce and suppress the virus. The measure will also have the longer term effect of improving the air quality inside buildings and prevent the transmission of other viruses. At home we can open our windows as and when we wish. If we are heading to a shop, we can get a draught through the house or whatever we want. We do not have that luxury in businesses, workplaces and schools.
We know where we are at with schools at the moment, and Deputy Ó Ríordáin will speak in more detail about that. We have kids who are freezing cold, wearing their coats and masks but the windows are open. It is bizarre. We do not want to sit here criticising Government policy just because we are in Opposition, but it is hard not to criticise something so bloody ludicrous when we have, and have spoken about, a potential solution for nearly a year and a half.
HEPA filters work. Let us consider an environment where HEPA filters have been used for many years. There is no more contained and enclosed environment than aeroplanes and they have used HEPA filters for years. In all studies that have been done on the spread of this virus, and I am not talking about travel or anything like that, the risk of being on an aeroplane and spreading the virus is very low because of the use of HEPA filters, yet we are not putting them in schools where our children are learning. We are not putting them in businesses. We are not putting them in venues where the arts community is able to work. Why? Because this Government continues to take a reactive panicked approach. It continues to hope that every wave is going to be the last even though the WHO has said this pandemic is going to be here until 2023 and we need to put in place long-term measures to pandemic-proof, as best as possible, our society to protect the health service, protect our children in school, protect workers and protect society. The reason the temperature of anger in Opposition is getting so high is because we have been putting forward practical solutions such as this for a long time that would have benefits far beyond this pandemic.
When it comes to health and safety inspectors, if we go back to the spread of the virus in meat plants in the summer of 2020 and indeed beyond that, we know we do not have enough health and safety inspectors. We need to resource the Health and Safety Authority to ensure we have inspectors who are able to monitor workplaces, schools and public buildings in terms of the measures proposed in this Bill. This is good public health policy. This is not radical stuff. This is proven good public health policy, so it beggars belief as to why it has not been done. As we have heard, money is not an object here. This is political will and that is why we are so angry. We fully support this Bill. This is a very good Bill and it has our support.
I am beginning to think that the new phrase in political circles, which is not opposing the Bill, feels a bit like you can go and talk to the cat because it has pretty much the same effect. The frustration we have on the Opposition benches is we have spent the past 18 months trying to bring forward practical solutions to benefit workers and people in society and to fill the gaps and fault lines that Covid has exposed. I am talking of basic protections for workers and young workers who have been asked to work from home and the protections they need. Sick pay is a basic provision in almost every other European country, yet we still struggle to grapple with such pay. I believe the Government's recommendation is that 7% of a person's wages would be covered by sick pay, which for a minimum wage worker would not even cover on a daily basis the price of going to a GP to get a certificate.
Now we have this recommendation in terms of legislation from the Opposition. Again, it is a basic provision in the fight against Covid. Schools have been mentioned and we had a debate with the Minister for Education this morning as to why people like Professor Orla Hegarty are not being listened to when she says it would cost €12 million to install a HEPA filter in every primary school class in the country. Yet, when it comes to Government, it seems as if, when it gets advice or a recommendation from the Opposition, it has to deal with it with a mindset of scorn and not being open-minded enough to work on this together. When we asked about antigen testing and when Professor Mark Ferguson said last May that it should be introduced in primary and second level schools, the Government sat on it for six months. Meanwhile the Government has repeatedly told us schools are safe until NPHET told us last week it never said that in the first place. Then the Government gave schools 16 hours to implement a mask-wearing measure for third class and up. Meanwhile, as my colleague has said, children are sitting in classrooms wearing coats, scarves, hats and gloves with the windows open and what Professor Orla Hegarty is saying seems to be irrelevant. When practical and goodwill legislation is brought in to protect workers, we get the not opposed line from Government, which has the same legal basis as saying you can talk to the cat.
What we are trying to bring forward here is a practical suggestion from the Opposition as to what is actually happening on the ground because we want to be part of the solution.
We want to drive leadership in our own communities. We want to assure everybody that there is hope, that we can get through this and that things are not disimproving out of control. That is the level of anxiety every public representative must deal with day to day. What the Government sometimes throws back at us is that we are not putting on the green jersey or we are not part of the same team. That is deeply insulting to those of us who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with people who are losing hope, who are cracking up and who are now facing into what they think is going to be a very difficult December, Christmastime and January. This is particularly so as yesterday the Taoiseach was again very unwise in his words on school opening in January. Meanwhile, basic supports such as the EWSS and the PUP are being cut. I ask the Minister of State to take advice from the Opposition in good faith, to stop using this line about not opposing and to embrace what we are trying to achieve here to protect workers in their workplaces.
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.
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.
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak on this Bill. There is no doubt that workplace ventilation is of huge importance to all at this time. Every effort must be made to safeguard those working in largely populated workplaces. In my view, the Government has been reactive rather than proactive on so many fronts in regard to this pandemic. It should for once seek to be one step ahead, the proof of which would be the installation of ventilation systems in our schools, which is not addressed in this Bill. Our classrooms are overcrowded. Many of these classrooms are in prefabs and others are in very old rooms. It is well known that our pupil-teacher ratio is the highest in Europe. In classrooms the length and breadth of this country there are windows open daily and, thus, very young children are perished with the cold. This is preventible.
My Rural Independent Group colleague, Deputy O'Donoghue, was the first to speak in the Dáil early last year about a system of proper ventilation that could be cheaply fitted into every classroom in the country. That was ignored while at the same time tens of millions of euros were blown on a health budget with very little accountability. I said earlier that I welcomed the opportunity to contribute to this debate. However, I do not see any mention in this Bill of who will pay for the increased cost of fitting these air filtration devices. The State must take some responsibility for this. The importance of these ventilation systems cannot be ignored. I listened to the interview with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, on RTÉ's "Today with Claire Byrne" on Monday morning. It is clear that neither he nor the HSE has bothered to read any of these studies. The Minister said that the advice from the HSE advisory group was that ventilation filters would not work in our schools, based on research done by the HSE. I do not know if the Minister and the HSE have really studied this. A recent study by Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge found that there are benefits from air purification in preventing airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2. This has been studied for some time now in education and medical settings with positive results. The most recent study in Addenbrooke's Hospital generated first-class data which demonstrated the efficiency of air purification in reducing the spread of Covid within indoor environments. The study is also really interesting as it aimed to determine how air purifiers stand up to real world conditions.
Dr. Vilas Navapurkar, who is an ICU physician at the hospital in Cambridge, installed air purification devices in two fully occupied Covid-19 wards, a general ward and an ICU ward. The team then chose HEPA filters which drew air through a fine mesh to capture extremely small particles known as aerosols. Air samples were collected from the wards during the weeks when the air filters were switched on and two weeks when they were turned off.
The Minister is taking advice from the HSE, which I would like to see. Will he publish that and make it public at this stage?
I thank the Deputy who introduced this Bill. I would give it a guarded welcome as it does not specifically mention ventilation in our schools nor does it mention who will pay for the increased cost of fitting these air filtration devices. The Minister of State is acutely aware of what is involved in running a business, be it a small, medium or large-scale one. Some Members in this House are of the view that employers can manage and pay for everything but they must also balance their books and ensure they can keep people in employment. If the Government goes along with this measure, it would be insisting that it would have to provide funding by way of grants to all the businesses to insert these devices.
In the limited time available, I wish to discuss what is happening with respect to ventilation in our schools. Parents are deeply concerned. We must remember students, be they the small youngsters in national school or the teenagers in secondary school, are perished with the cold. They are sitting in classrooms with the windows and doors open. We want to keep our schools open. The phones lit up today with calls from parents who are concerned about their children having to wearing masks. We must think about our youngsters. The virus is an awful worry to all of us but the other health issues related to young students and children who are perished with the cold in classrooms every day are also worrying. We must think about how we are managing their welfare at this time. We must be very careful because this is horrendous. The Minister of State can think back to when he was going to school and he can imagine if he had to sit in a classroom all day with no heat and a gale-force wind blowing through the school. It is frightening. Like every other public representative here, I have been inundated with parents contacting me to say they are very worried and angry because they are concerned for their children’s welfare. I would give the Bill a cautioned welcome.
I am glad to have this opportunity to speak to this Bill dealing with the emergency Covid prevention measures in the workplace. It is fine to talk about schools in the context of the Bill but that aspect is being used to bring the same regulations into businesses. That is my worry. Private businesses, the small employers, are struggling to cope with every kind of an increase in the cost of insurance and fuel to keep workplaces warm. If such a measure were to be introduced, we need to know the cost of it and how much per square foot or square yard it would cost employers to put these measures in place. I note the Bill includes the words "to provide for health and safety inspectors to take CO2 measures". That is all fine but who will foot the bill? Many businesses are in trouble and barely managing to carry on after the long lockdowns they have endured and are now trying to get going again.
I support the aspect of the Bill dealing with ventilation systems for schools. As has been said, children are cold in school at present. The Government said schools were safe and now to top it off it is insisting children aged nine and over will have to wear masks in school. That will be hard for many children who may have health issues. We all remember the way it was in schools in the past. The generation before us had to bring a sod of turf with them to keep the schools warm. That is not needed with the heating systems in place now but the doors and the windows are open and that is not acceptable. The Government will have to address the ventilation systems in schools. It must take that on board and ensure children are not impacted in terms of being vulnerable to getting more bouts of flu, colds or pneumonia. I support that part of the Bill but I need more assistance regarding what will happen or who will pay for these ventilation systems in the workplace.
I am thankful for the opportunity to speak to this Bill. I thank People Before Profit and, in particular, Deputy Paul Murphy, for highlighting this very important issue. I completely support the Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill. In fact, I am surprised this has not been considered as a serious option prior to now. It is hard to believe anyone would argue against the need for clean air, especially given the fact we are in the midst of a global pandemic due to an airborne virus. We know Covid-19 transmits when people breathe in air contaminated by droplets and small airborne particles containing the virus. Why then are we not putting the steps in place to reduce the risk of this? Surely effective ventilation and clean air are an obvious solution.
If we are going to live with this virus and establish a new normal, we need to make sure there is a low risk of transmission in our workplaces. Employers should be responsible for creating a safe, ventilated workplace in the same way they were responsible for employee health, safety and welfare prior to the pandemic. We need to make sure our workers are protected and feel safe and comfortable to return to work. This is the only way we will be able to move forward and live with this virus.
It is clear that vaccines alone will not get us out of this pandemic, especially in the face of new variants. The Government needs to stop relying on vaccination alone. As well as that, we cannot continuously impose lockdowns forever. It is just not sustainable. We have been told of the importance of clean air time and again by many different experts. It is time the Government stopped ignoring the need for ventilated workplaces and put in place enhanced regulation to ensure proper and adequate ventilation.
The Government also needs to stop giving the public mixed messages. The whole "schools are safe" or "actually, we never said schools are safe" mixed messaging from NPHET and the Government was a complete farce. It was completely absurd. We all knew that schools were not safe. We had all seen the high transmission rates in our local schools and we brought it up time and again to constant reassurance it was not an issue, and then we are told this never happened. It makes a joke of the whole organisation, or lack of organisation, of the whole thing. We know there is an issue in schools but it is better to keep the schools open and that is what should have been said from day one.
Here we are, once again, bringing to the Government's attention the need to establish a right to clean air and require employers to ensure proper ventilation and air filtration. I hope the Government has learned from the mistakes made and will listen this time. This Bill makes sense. It is needed. I sincerely hope we can rely on the Government to support it.
This Bill would not only require employers to ventilate their workspaces but would give workers the right to seek to have their workplace inspected by the HSA. I strongly support this as I believe it is very important workers have the option to request to have their workplaces inspected by an outside authority in order to feel truly safe in their places of work. We need to provide enforceable standards for air quality and the HSA should be able to inspect the air quality at the request of workers.
I cannot see any reason the Government would not support this Bill or consider introducing enhanced regulation to ensure proper ventilation, other than pride. There can be no other logical reason apart from that it is too proud to admit it is wrong and to admit this should have been looked at a long time ago. I see no shame in admitting you are wrong. It is one of the bravest things you can do. I believe this House would function much better if many of us would do that from time to time. There is especially no shame in admitting you are wrong when human lives are potentially at risk and we have the option to protect them.
I thank Deputy Paul Murphy and People Before Profit for bringing this Bill before the House. It is a practical, down-to-earth Bill that will achieve real progress.
I am pleased to hear that the Government supports the Bill in principle. However, I hope to see real urgency in progressing it. Earlier, the Minister of State, Deputy English, mentioned that there may be some legal difficulties with the Bill. That may be the case but we all know that Covid waits for nobody. Therefore, there must be immediate movement on this legislation. This is a practical, real measure that will make a difference. Listening to all the different speakers in the debate, it is clear that there is general agreement on that. That is fine. We can talk here but I will not be satisfied unless I see this Bill moving rapidly through the legislative process.
My time is short and I will focus on schools. As a former teacher, I have some idea of what is involved here. While this Bill is for all workplaces - it is important to remember that - that is where I will focus. One of the reasons I am doing that is because there is a real sense of urgency around schools. Teachers did their very best to work online from home but there is overall agreement that students need to go to school. Therefore, there is a special sense of urgency to make sure that they are safe places to work in.
The Department of Education website has a guide entitled, "Practical Steps for the Deployment of Good Ventilation Practices in Schools". There is a long list of instructions. The first is: "The over-arching approach for schools should be to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use ...". They tell us when that is: "break-times", "lunch-times", etc. Then we are told; "As most schools rely on the opening of windows ... it is important that windows and air vents can be accessed and opened." The third recommendation is to ensure rooms are "well ventilated before occupancy each day."
Moving down, recommendation 7 tells us, "In colder weather any local chilling effect can be offset by partially opening the windows nearest to and above the radiators." Recommendation 8 tells us, "It is important to make sure that air movement is not blocked by furniture or ... blinds and curtains." It is in the same vein, right up to recommendation 19. If ever I saw the Ladybird introduction to opening windows, this is it.
If I were a teacher now, or a school principal or a member of the board of management, I would be tearing my hair out reading what the Department is telling me, in steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices in schools, when that is all there is in place to ensure good ventilation in classrooms for students, teachers and school staff.
That is why I am so pleased to see this Bill. Hopefully, we are finally moving from the Ladybird version of how to ventilate the schools to legislation that will help to make our schools safe places.
Like every other Deputy present, I have received so many emails from parents and teachers, with parents telling me their daughters are coming home frozen and teachers telling how concerned they are, especially for those with underlying conditions. We have a good basis for legislation here. I would like immediate movement on this.
I reiterate that the Government supports the principle, and the objectives behind this Bill. I assure the Deputy Murphy that the Minister of State, Deputy English, and his officials, will work with him on determining the best approach to achieving its objectives. It is important that the objectives of the Bill can be delivered in an effective and efficient way.
Officials of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will also engage with the HSA to determine the best mechanisms for the delivery of the objectives of the Bill, including compliance checks across workplaces, and to determine the potential impact on the authority and how this can be addressed.
Since the arrival of Covid-19, it is clear that the vast majority of employers, business managers and employees have stepped up and implemented not only the requirements, but also in the spirit, of the work safely protocol, which sets out the public health measures to be taken in the workplace to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19. As alluded to earlier, ventilation is covered in the protocol and Government's expert group on ventilation supports the manner in which ventilation is addressed in the protocol.
When it comes to working together to deal with Covid-19 in the workplace, the majority of employers and employees have neither been found wanting or been reluctant to embrace new measures and updated advice as time has moved on and levels of knowledge and expertise have improved.
I would stress to Deputy Murphy that we are not starting from scratch here. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 create a requirement on employers to make sure that there is an adequate supply of fresh air - ventilation - in enclosed areas of the workplace. The evaluation of ventilation in a workplace should form part of an overall workplace risk assessment.
The HSA currently has enforcement powers to seek improvement in ventilation in workplaces. In parallel with the work safely protocol, the authority has also produced a ventilation check list for employers to assist then to comply with the protocol. The authority will also put a greater emphasis on the general provision of adequate workplace ventilation over the coming months.
What we all need to do is to ensure is that any further enhancements in our collective approach to better workplace ventilation are carried out in a thorough, effective and streamlined manner.
Finally, I understand that officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the HSA would like an opportunity to meet with the Deputy prior to Committee Stage to discuss the Bill and how its objectives can be achieved speedily and implemented in a practical way.
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.