The Green Party says provisions in the Building Code to prevent the spread of viruses should be strengthened or enforced in light of Covid-19

With almost all Covid-19 restrictions repealed under the Orange setting, experts now say that ventilation is one of the few remaining tools to slow virus transmission.

Improving indoor air quality through filtering out harmful particles or ventilating spaces with fresh air is a mainstay of infection control. While other countries have been tackling Covid-19 as an airborne virus since 2020, New Zealand’s first approach to air quality came at the start of last year.

Then, transmission between rooms in the Pullman managed isolation facility in Auckland saw an overhaul of ventilation across the MIQ system. Experts at the time called for that approach to spread to other cramped, indoor venues, but that hasn’t happened.

“We’ve seen in the MIQ facilities that hotel rooms aren’t necessarily suitable for having people who are infectious in them. They’re not designed for the ventilation and things,” University of Otago public health expert Julie Bennett told Newsroom in November.

“It goes for all buildings that we need to be really considering what kind of systems we’re going to be putting in these buildings and how are we going to keep them warm. That might take us to a different way of building and a higher set of standards to get the outcomes that we’re after.”

The Building Code is updated every year, but no changes to the virus-related provisions in the standards were proposed as part of the latest revamp. The Green Party says the code needs to be strengthened or better enforced, because so few buildings have Covid-safe ventilation, while Building and Construction Minister Poto Williams says regulations aren’t the answer to this problem.

One section of the code specifically requires buildings to “have a means of collecting or otherwise removing the following products from the spaces in which they are generated”, including “bacteria, viruses or other pathogens”.

“There is a pathway to do it,” Greens Covid-19 spokesperson Teanau Tuiono said. However, it doesn’t seem to have made a difference in getting building owners to take Covid-19 into account.

“I just want them to [improve ventilation]. If this is not going to make them do it, then of course we need to find something that’s more stringent. But if I read it, it looks like there’s enough there for them to get on with it.”

Williams, in a statement to Newsroom, said the code was up to scratch but not the right tool for the job.

“The Building Code cannot prevent Covid-19 infections on its own. The Building Code applies to new building work only and sets minimum requirements for buildings to provide adequate outdoor air to maintain air purity,” she said.

“The most significant reduction in transmission risk is achieved when several Covid-19 measures are used together, including vaccinations, masks, social distancing, good hygiene practices, and getting plenty of fresh air.”

While experts have called for a major retrofit of buildings across the country, Williams said this isn’t on the cards.

“Most building ventilation designs were never intended or designed to cope with a Covid transmission scenario and it is not expected for existing ventilation systems to be retrofitted,” she said.

“The best strategy is to ventilate as much as is practicable, and where natural ventilation solutions are used, purge the air by opening windows to bring in new fresh air. Fresh air increases the dilution of any aerosol content reducing the risk of contamination.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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