Open the windows to shut the door on Covid-19

Oliver Patrick, Somerset County Councillor (Coker Division) explains why clean air, indoors and out, should be a priority for legislators.

This week I built my 20th Corsi-Rosenthal Box (below) using the funds donated through my GoFundMe. Fifteen of these DIY air filters have gone into schools and Early Year Foundation Stage settings in the Yeovil area. Two have gone to warm hubs, and three went to Clinically Extremely Vulnerable families over Christmas. Reaching this small but significant milestone has caused me to reflect on how far the Somerset clean air campaign has come since September 2022.

If you’ve been following my progress on social media or in the news, you’ll know I’ve been very busy raising money for air filters in local schools. But the campaign is far bigger than just giving out air filters. If we are to learn the lessons of the pandemic, we have got to be ambitious. That’s why, for example, I’ve been bringing together aerosol scientists, specialists in communicable disease control, and health and safety experts to formulate policy. Your readers will know there is already a Clean Air (Human Rights) Bill progressing through the House of Commons. I believe it could be improved by including limits on indoor CO₂ levels.

Other countries such as Belgium and France have already legislated for safe CO₂ levels indoors. Belgium and France have taken slightly different approaches. France is starting with schools whilst Belgium is targeting every public space. In summary, those responsible for indoor spaces open to the public, have to take steps to ensure CO₂ levels indoors don’t exceed 800ppm (parts per million). They are taking indoor air quality very seriously, and so should we.

They certainly are in the House of Commons, where air purifiers have been installed specifically to limit the spread of Covid-19. They were also taking indoor air quality seriously last week at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where the meeting rooms were full of HEPA filters. Yet whilst the rich and powerful are cleaning the air to limit their chances of catching Covid-19, most of us are heading into offices, meeting rooms, and schools with no air filtration and no ventilation.  Access to clean and safe indoor air is the latest inequality.

But let’s get back to Somerset. I’m proud of what the council has done over the last few months. For example when warm hubs were being set up, Somerset’s Public Health team put this advice together and sent it to every hub in Somerset (see below). The advice to warm hubs was very clear – “fresh air is your friend!” and CO₂ levels of 1,500ppm and over are “UNSAFE.” I’ve been taking my CO₂ monitor out to a variety of places and it’s astonishing how many readings over 1,500ppm I get. The worst reading I’ve had was in a restaurant, where the CO₂ reached 2,890ppm!

In addition to sending this advice to warm hubs about CO₂ and ventilation, the county council has also started monitoring CO₂ levels in meetings. When the council last sat in Bridgwater’s Canalside Conference Centre, all the doors and windows were opened when CO₂ edged towards 1,500ppm. Little yellow CO₂ monitors have appeared in smaller committee meetings at County Hall in Taunton, too. When CO₂ gets too high the windows are opened, and little posters like this (below) have been stuck near windows to remind people to ventilate rooms. Consequently, my CO₂ monitor readings in County Hall are pretty good!

So, what next? I’m still fundraising to build air filters for schools in the Yeovil area. I’ve certainly no plans to scale back my campaign for clean air in schools. After all, children are still the most unvaccinated cohort. Ultimately, however, I’ve come to realise that the way to make real change happen is through legislation. That’s why everyone needs to write to their MPs and urge them to support Ella’s Law (the Clean Air Bill) in the House of Commons. In the coming months I’ll be working hard to get indoor CO₂ limits added to the Clean Air Bill.

The parallels with the development of modern sewage systems are fascinating. In the early-to-mid-19th century, deadly cholera outbreaks were commonplace as human sewage polluted our drinking water (sounds familiar…). Dr John Snow first identified the solution in 1854, when almost single-handedly he ended a cholera outbreak by getting the handle taken off the contaminated Broad Street Pump in London. However, Dr Snow’s theories were dismissed by the scientific community. It took a further four years for the penny to drop. Cholera was only consigned to history when Parliament legislated to spend £3m (£284m in today’s money) on building city-wide sewers, to stop sewage from polluting the water supply.

In much the same way, it’s only when the right to clean and safe indoor air is established in law that we’ll truly close the door on Covid-19. It’s likely we would simultaneously close the door on seasonal flu and a host of other respiratory infections, too. Wouldn’t that be something?