Investing in building ventilation will play a key role in helping the country recover from the Covid-19 pandemic and prepare for future health emergencies, according to the government's chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty.
He encouraged business leaders at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference to look closely at how they could improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) in their buildings to provide better long-term working conditions for their employees.
“We have realised the extraordinary importance of improving the ventilation of workplaces, not just for Covid but also for many other respiratory infections,” he said. “If we invest in that now, we’ll both help the aftermath of Covid, but also cut down on things like flu outbreaks.”
He put investment in ventilation as the second most important step businesses could take behind helping their staff get fully vaccinated – and highlighted the direct link between poor IAQ and health conditions that put extra pressure on the NHS.
Whitty’s words were welcomed by Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) chief executive David Frise.
“The pandemic has raised the profile of building ventilation and clearly demonstrated the link between poor IAQ and a range of respiratory infections,” he said. “Improving indoor ventilation reduces the risk of transmitting diseases between people so investment made now will have significant long-term economic and social benefits.”
The Scottish Government has also launched a £25 million fund to help businesses improve the ventilation in their premises. SMEs are being invited to apply for grants of up to £2,500 to install air quality monitors and carry out remedial work on windows and ventilation systems.
The administration pointed out the importance of carrying out such work to prepare for winter when people spend more time indoors and are more likely to keep windows and doors shut.
“All of these basic mitigation measures are really important at this stage but some of them are also valuable long-term investments,” said First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. “For example, better ventilation won’t just reduce the spread of Covid – it will also help reduce the spread of other airborne viruses, now and in the future.”
Professor Cath Noakes, who is one of two engineer members the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), is another high-profile figure calling for a national programme of building ventilation improvements in the wake of Covid-19.
She told the recent BESA National Conference that the impact of poor ventilation on human health and productivity had been clearly exposed by the pandemic.
“Many of our buildings are under-ventilated and there is no excuse for it,” said Noakes, who is Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds. “We know buildings can improve health and that poor indoor air quality reduces productivity by up to 9% - that’s half a working day a week.”
She also pointed out that even before the pandemic 5.3 million working days were being lost every year to respiratory infections, according to the Office for National Statistics.
However, the challenge for businesses and other building users, including schools, is how to improve ventilation cost-effectively. Many are simply resorting to opening windows and doors to increase airflows, but Noakes says this ‘natural’ approach is often not enough.
“The increased amount of indoor air quality monitoring since the pandemic is helping because it is making people more aware of their indoor environment,” she said. “However, it is now clear that it is very hard to naturally ventilate buildings adequately, particularly in winter.”
A study by Coventry University has established that 40% of primary school buildings are inadequately ventilated against the risk of Covid-19 transmission. The researchers found that this was largely because they rely on natural ventilation and that teachers were reluctant to open windows during cold weather.
“Ventilation strategies have often been driven by a desire to save energy, which has created an over-reliance on so-called ‘natural’ systems,” said Frise. “If we follow Cath Noakes’ advice and focus more on health and well-being outcomes for people, we will need an approach that makes far more use of mechanical systems with simple controls that gives people from non-technical backgrounds a better chance of controlling their indoor environment.”
BESA has developed a range of guidance to help owners and managers turn their buildings into ‘safe havens’ from the threat of airborne contaminants, including viruses.
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