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Public transport and buildings need better ventilation to cope with virus threat

Buildings and public transport systems need improved ventilation to reduce the risk of further spreading of Covid-19 and other infections, a report has recommended.

Published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the report finds that leading engineers believe ventilation is too often neglected, and the Covid-19 pandemic in particular has exposed flaws in the way in which we design, manage and operate buildings.

With the government ending all lockdown rules from Monday but Covid cases rising rapidly again, experts have stressed the importance of employing simple steps to minimise the virus’s spread.

The report warns that unless the ventilation issues are addressed, future pandemics could impose high financial and health costs on society and constrain our ability to address other challenges such as climate change.

Efforts to increase resilience to infection must also work alongside the delivery of significant carbon emission savings from our buildings, the report said. But it warned that technological solutions are not a “silver bullet”, and uninformed reliance on technology can even have negative consequences.

For example, air cleaning using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or ultraviolet light (UVC) can be effective at reducing infection risks in locations where good ventilation is difficult to achieve, but the benefits of using other kinds of air-cleaning devices is less clear.

Professor Peter Guthrie, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, 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, 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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