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Ignoring ventilation is the great unspoken error of our government’s Covid-19 strategy

The i 7/22/2021 Ian Dunt

You see it every day, in pubs and restaurants across the country: staff will put on visors, wipe down tables, ask customers to sanitise their hands – and then they close the doors and windows. It’s an act of epidemiological insanity. We diligently carry out the actions which do the least good to combat infection and ignore those which do the most good.

It’s extraordinary that 18 months into this pandemic we are still making these rudimentary mistakes. And the reason for it comes down to three issues: our inability to update our risk assessments, our susceptibility to hygiene theatre and a predictable cycle of government failure.

Back in March 2020, when the pandemic first broke out, there was comparatively little understanding of how Covid-19 spread. But our understanding has now improved. People very rarely get Covid by touching an infected surface.

“The risk is generally considered to be low,” the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in April. Ventilation, on the other hand, is recognised as being vitally important.

Covid is an airborne virus predominantly transmitted through droplets and aerosols. The best prevention is to maintain social distancing, stay outside where possible and keep indoor areas fully ventilated, so the particles get carried away and dissipate. Buildings can be ventilated in a couple of ways: naturally, by opening windows and doors, or mechanically, by using a system that circulates air taken in from outside the building.

But something happened to us at the start of the pandemic. The initial message – that of hand-washing and face-touching – just kind of stuck. Even as the scientific understanding evolved, government messaging and people’s risk assessments seemed to stay the same.

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The wipe-down theatre also seems to satisfy us on a basic visual level. Unlike ventilation, which is largely invisible, it gives the impression of something being done. In many workplaces – from pubs to offices – this impression has taken precedence over effective anti-covid measures.

“We will still treat the surfaces, primarily because it is visually reassuring for our colleagues,” an official told a recent National Engineering Policy Centre evidence hearing. “If a cleaner is being seen to clean high touchpoints on a regular basis, that is way more reassuring than us telling people that we have increased our air supply rate to 16 litres per second, because that means nothing to the average office occupant.”

But psychological vulnerabilities only get us so far. The chief responsibility for what has happened lies with the government. It wasn’t until March 2021, a year after the first lockdown, that it published guidance on ventilation. And even since then it has failed to deliver a clear message to the public.

They can’t claim ignorance. In July 2020, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group warned that “face shields/visors are unlikely to be an effective control for aerosol transmission”. Instead, “it is recommended that organisations should take steps to ensure appropriate ventilation provision.” This needed to be done in time for winter, when the cold weather would prompt people to close windows.

In October 2020, the Sage group of scientific advisers intervened. “Ventilation is an important mitigation measure against far-field aerosol transmission,” it said. “The effectiveness of ventilation in many environments is strongly influenced by user behaviour. Clear messaging and guidelines will be needed to improve understanding.”

Later that month, the Environmental and Modelling group called for “sector specific guidance” for “building/facilities managers and professional engineers” setting out practical advice on improving ventilation. “It is recommended to identify where there may need to be financial or technical support.”

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The winter passed. We’re now in the height of summer, with another winter on the way, and yet the guidance to the Government looks exactly the same as it did this time last year.

A report last week by the Royal Academy of Engineering, commissioned by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, reads as if it was written over 12 months ago – making the same urgent demands and calling for the same actions.

It found that a majority of building owners and operators still “have modest levels of relevant knowledge, skills, budgets, and organisational maturity in this area”, partly due to the fact that “the scientific evidence… has not been communicated”. It called on the Government to “rapidly develop and deliver clear communications” and fund “private and public sector organisations to improve the poorest performing spaces in buildings”.

And yet there is really very little reason to think that will take place. No.10 has consistently failed to communicate the importance of ventilation, advise businesses appropriately or fund the changes which many of them need to implement.

Ventilation is the great unspoken error of our pandemic strategy. One of the main factors in Covid transmission has been largely ignored. And there are few signs the Government has learned its lesson.

Ian Dunt is Editor-at-Large at Politics.co.uk

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