Experts: Ventilation essential in transport and public buildings to reduce COVID-19 risks

Public spaces such as stations and trains should be well ventilated to reduce infection risk.

Public spaces and transportation systems – such as railway stations and rolling stock – should have the best possible ventilation to cut back on COVID-19 infection risks, experts have said.

They also urged the government to map out and help plug skill gaps relating to this in the engineering professions.

As COVID-19 restrictions lift, a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the National Engineering Policy Centre has said it was easy to overlook the importance of ventilation.

Sir Patrick Vallance.

Infection Resilient Environments: Buildings that keep us healthy and safe, commissioned by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said there were flaws in the ways in which buildings were designed, managed and operated. The cost of getting this wrong, it said, could be financial, medical and social.

It asked for clear government advice on the issue, and said that the cost to building owners would be “moderate” for them to prioritise, alongside cleaning and social distancing.

But it shared concern that a knowledge gap was notable, with an urgent need for improvement. Training, re-skilling and recruitment were ways the report suggested the gap could be plugged.

Infection control skills, and the commitment to tackle them, varied sector to sector, evidentiary hearings from the Royal Academy of Engineering uncovered.

It said money was needed to be put into further research and development to clarify issues – such as acceptable minimum standards for ventilation to support regulation by local authorities. Efforts to increase resilience to infection must also work in tandem with the delivery of significant carbon emission savings from buildings.

Technology was not however, the report warned, a “silver bullet” to fix all issues. The fear the report shared was that the owners of public buildings, which would include railway stations, might become too reliant on technology like HEPA filters and ultraviolet light – two technologies the report singled out as helpful in spaces where good ventilation was not possible.

The report, published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the National Engineering Policy Centre, said there were flaws in the ways in which buildings were designed, managed and operated.

The report’s key recommendations were:

  1. The government should “urgently” map the knowledge and skills requirements across the building industry, general businesses, and the engineering professions and put forward plans to address skills gaps.
  2. The government should undertake a rapid review of the capacity and capability requirements among regulators (including local authorities) to support and enforce standards in maintaining buildings for public health.
  3. Working with the National Core Studies Programme, UKRI and the National Academies, the government should set out an action plan to address key research gaps on an accelerated basis.
  4. Research and demonstration projects should be commissioned to fill key knowledge gaps – including the acceptable minimum standards for ventilation to manage infection risk and to underwrite regulation and enforcement.
  5. Action to meet Net Zero must be developed in a way which is consistent with priorities around indoor air quality and making buildings resilient to infection.
Professor Peter Guthrie.

Vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and chairman of the NEPC infection resilient environments working group, Professor Peter Guthrie OBE FREng, said: “Buildings make an enormous difference to people’s health and we have often neglected this in the past, which is bad news in a pandemic, because they are one of the most significant levers that we have to control infection. We must take action now to make sure that good practice in ventilation is widely understood and applied across workplaces and public buildings.

“Longer term, this is a real opportunity to transform the way we design and manage our buildings to create good, healthy and sustainable environments for those who use them. We must also integrate this with thinking on infection control into our approach to Net Zero, to prevent inadvertently hard-wiring a susceptibility to infection and other health risks into our building stock and management practices.”

Dr Hywel Davies.

Technical Director at the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, Dr Hywel Davies CChem CSci, said: “Clear communication on ventilation is essential – we need to support owners and operators with clear and simple guidance, emphasising the importance of improving ventilation while maintaining wider good practice on infection control.

“Our aim should be to enable everyone who has responsibility for managing buildings or transport to understand how to respond in a practical and timely manner, and to establish an appropriate balance of measures to manage infection risks alongside thermal comfort, air quality and energy concerns.”

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