Clean air technology will be used to make sure fresh and clean air flows through schools and stop Covid spreading when the autumn term starts.
The Welsh Government will spend £6m on 30,000 CO2 sensors and 1,800 ozone disinfecting machines in a bid to improve ventilation in schools, colleges and universities.
Welsh doctors have welcomed the move having long-advocated air flow as a way to significantly reduce the risk of spreading Covid in enclosed places. Using the technology, developed by Swansea University, will bring Wales in line with England after the UK government announced last week that CO2 monitors would be provided to all English state schools.
The National Association of Head Teachers said “clear guidance” was needed on what action to take when poor air quality was identified while Plaid Cymru has called for safety guidance regarding ozone disinfecting machines.
There is concern about toxic chemicals contained within the ozone disinfecting machines. Developed at Swansea University, the machines convert oxygen in a room to ozone, a chemical that kills Covid in the air and on surfaces, along with other viruses and bacteria. Once a room has been disinfected, the machine, each the size of a suitcase, converts the ozone back to oxygen. But ozone is so toxic that no one will be allowed inside the room when the machine is operating, according to Dr Chedly Tizaoui, who was part of the design team.
“That is the condition of the application,” he told The Guardian. “It is like the use of chlorine, you don’t want to be in an environment where chlorine is dispersed at high concentration. Ozone smells but people are not allowed to smell it. That is extremely important from a safety point of view.”
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Dr Eilir Hughes, a GP from Nefyn, Gwynedd, and a leading member of the Fresh Air campaign, said he was “really pleased” the Welsh government was taking the importance of ventilation seriously. He has repeatedly said that mitigating the spread of Covid-19 should focus on tackling airborne rather than surface spread. Dr Hughes was also instrumental in rolling out C02 monitors in Anglesey, where they’ve been used for more than a year now.
“We know that this virus spreads in the air and any measures you can introduce to reduce that risk of airborne transmission is welcome,” he told the BBC after the announcement on Monday.
“I’ve been campaigning for these measures for some time and involved in rolling them out on Anglesey.”
He remains unconvinced about the ozone disinfecting machines however and questioned if it was sensible to be testing the relatively new technology in schools. He said: “Adding a toxic substance to the environment raises concerns about how it will react to chemicals particularly in soft furnishings.”
He said better ventilation in schools was safer and a more effective means of tackling Covid in the classroom and argued that instead of rolling out expensive, untried, unnecessary technology, focusing on natural ventilation instead could effectively reduce transmission by up to 70%.”
At the beginning of August, the Welsh Government’s technical advisory cell endorsed CO2 monitors and said: “CO2 monitoring can be a cost-effective way to identify spaces with high occupancy and/or poor ventilation to indicate where transmission events may be more likely to occur.”
Dr Rhys Thomas, a consultant in anaesthetics at Glangwili Hospital, said the “more infectious and dangerous” Delta variant of coronavirus transfers more readily in the air.
“We have to bring in multiple mitigations to defeat this virus,” he explained. “We need fresh air and clear air in indoor environments. CO2 monitors are our canaries in the coalmine. They’ll start warning us that there’s not enough fresh air into that room.”
In Anglesey, council leader Llinos Medi told the BBC the equipment was there to “reassure” staff and pupils about the flow of air within school buildings.
“We need to throw everything at this. This is part of the answer,” she said.
“It’s disappointing that its nearly a year on since Ynys Môn made the decision, and the Welsh government is now making its decision. The practicality of getting them bought and set up will be extremely challenging.”
Announcing the initiative, Rebecca Evans, the minister for finance and local government, said: “By investing in new technology such as ozone disinfecting machines, we’re ensuring learners can stay in school and colleges as Wales moves beyond the pandemic.”
Plaid Cymru’s education spokesperson, Siân Gwenllian, said: “The use of ozone disinfecting machines is controversial to say the least and we all need to be satisfied that Welsh government is absolutely certain that they are a safe option before introducing them.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said the machines were only for disinfecting empty indoor spaces.
He said: “These machines have been developed to speed-up the decontamination of classrooms following a confirmed outbreak of covid-19 only, and not as a form of air purification for occupied indoor spaces.”
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