Ireland has failed to make sufficient progress in improving indoor ventilation and leadership is now badly needed to prevent yet another winter of Covid surges, an expert at University College Cork (UCC) has warned.
John Wenger, chair of the Expert Group on the Role of Ventilation in Reducing Transmission of Covid-19, has expressed disappointment that warnings issued this time last year have been ignored and the country finds itself back in the midst of another preventable surge.
“We do need to do more to prevent transmission, that is clear as day,” he said. “People are getting sick, people are getting re-infected, so we need to step up our measures.
"In the absence of masks and social distancing, ventilation is the only protective measure we’ve got.”
Reports by the expert group in February and March last year recommended urgent investment in ventilation to help to avoid a Covid surge in 2022.
“I think this needs investment, it can be done in an energy-efficient way. There is a lot of opportunity here to make for a healthier indoor environment. It does need leadership.”
He said expecting businesses and public places to work through the technicalities of ventilation alone is not practical.
“Buildings need to be professionally assessed, you do a risk assessment based on ventilation. We recommended [last year] that the Government put in place a programme for support of these initiatives.
"That was kind of discussed but it never really happened,” said the UCC professor.
Covid cases are spiking this month, with almost 40,000 cases reported alone over the weekend, and infectious diseases experts are warning the country could face at least another year of infections.
"At this time, people can start to think about getting things ready for next winter. We do not know what’s the next part of the Covid rollercoaster.”
He pointed in particular to schools and nursing homes as sectors in need of support.
The expert group has met twice this year, and Mr Wenger said the science around airborne transmission of Covid-19 has not changed so the advice in previous reports still stands.
He also said he has not been contacted about joining the Covid-19 advisory group being established to replace Nphet.
“We were brought together in our [ventilation] group because we had a different contribution to make, rather than just the medical contribution from Nphet,” he said.
“I hope that the new group does recognise the importance of airborne transmission and suggests protective measures accordingly like ventilation or filtration, and that it recognises the need for investment to keep on with our fight against Covid.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) was initially slow to accept the role of airborne transmission but by 2021 was strongly advising in favour of ventilation as one protective measure against the virus.
“Understanding and controlling building ventilation can improve the quality of the air we breathe and reduce the risk of indoor health concerns including preventing the virus that causes Covid-19 from spreading indoors,” advises the WHO roadmap for governments.