Lockdown rules in England are due to end on July 19 as part of the final stage of easing coronavirus restrictions, allowing more people to return to offices and use public transport.
But in a report commissioned by the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, leading engineers in the UK said the importance of ventilation is often neglected and the Covid-19 crisis has revealed flaws in the way many public buildings are designed, managed and operated.
They warned that failing to address air quality in buildings and transport systems could “impose high financial and health costs on society and constrain our ability to address other challenges such as climate change”.
In the report, published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and its partners in the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC), the experts said efforts to make public spaces safe from infection must also come with plans for significant carbon emission savings to achieve net zero where a balance is achieved between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the carbon removed from it.
Co-author Cath Noakes, professor of environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds, said: “As there is a move to reduce some of the measures like social distancing that are perceived to be more restrictive for organisations, I think it is actually more important than ever that we ensure that environments are playing the best role it can from this.
“We have got to give people the right understanding – and the knowledge to understand how their buildings work, and therefore, understand how they can use behaviour and manage those buildings effectively, but also then use technologies to mitigate some of the risks.”
Prof Noakes added: “Good ventilation is not only important for COVID-19, it affects our health and wellbeing in many other ways. It is critical that strategies to ensure good ventilation are embedded within approaches to attain net-zero to allow us to tackle public health and climate priorities together.
“We have options to use technology to help us manage our environments better for health and for the climate. Using simple monitoring tools such as CO2 meters can help us 'see the air' and understand when ventilation is poor or occupancy is too high.”
Professor Peter Guthrie, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering and chairman of the NEPC infection resilient environments working group, 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.”
He added: “What we need is a concerted push by the Government and others, such as professional institutions, to give owners and operators of all sorts of buildings a clear message about the importance of infection control, and give them consistent and easy-to-find guidance, which helps them to take the right steps to improve things such as ventilation.”
The experts said research is needed to determine what the acceptable minimum standard is for indoor air quality and ventilation.
They also highlighted the need to address the skills and knowledge gaps when it comes to making buildings and hospitals safe for use ahead of the winter when a surge in flu and other respiratory viruses could put pressure on people’s health and the NHS.
Professor Shaun Fitzgerald, director of research at Centre for Climate Repair, Cambridge University, said: “It is important to note that providing good levels of ventilation is not in conflict with our need also to get to net zero, in fact, quite the opposite.
“The first principle for getting to net zero means designing buildings which seriously reduce heat loss through conduction and radiation and minimise uncontrolled ventilation.
“For example, if the building is empty at night, you should not be leaking warm air because heating systems will then need to work hard to bring the building back up to temperature in the early morning, ready for the next working day.
“However, when the building is occupied, it needs ventilating but many indoor environments have natural heat sources, such as computers screens lighting, and of course, the people themselves, when they occupied.
“Ventilation systems can be designed to exploit these heat gains, and this is the fundamental principle, the future construction, which can help ensure we achieve both net zero buildings and healthy ones too.”