The Government has been called on to provide clean air filters to schools across the country rather than just installing them in Westminster for themselves "on the hush-hush".

The cost of installing air filters in every classroom in the UK would be “eclipsed” by the health, educational and financial benefits of reduced absence and illness amongst pupils and staff who are being exposed to repeat Covid-19 infections.

That is the assessment of a Lancashire teacher and union health and safety official, who is urging the government to roll out the kind of kit that the Department for Education (DfE) itself has deployed in its own offices – and which also helps protect MPs at Westminster.

Ian Watkinson said he wants the ITV drama “Breathtaking” – which has this week been charting the experience of frontline NHS staff at the onset of the pandemic – to serve as a reminder the threat from Covid-19 has changed, not ended.

He says while the risks today are different, for most people, to those faced prior to a vaccine being developed, they remain real and should not be ignored – including the danger of developing Long Covid or experiencing long-term damage to vital organs, as evidenced by multiple studies.

The last time UK data on Long Covid was published – in March 2023 – as part of an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, it was estimated there were 59,000 children aged between two and 16 who had “self-reported Long Covid”, where their infection, or suspected infection, had occurred at least 12 weeks earlier.

Lancashire Telegraph: Ian WatkinsonIan Watkinson

“Covid-19 is absolutely not over, but there’s not really much effort going into pushing that [message] out there,” said Mr Watkinson, who is chair of the National Education Union’s (NEU) North West Health and Safety Forum and vice-chair of the equivalent national group.

“Everybody knows somebody who’s either got Covid or had it recently – and might even know somebody who’s got Long Covid. – so we all know it’s not over. It’s [a question of] how we learn to live with it in the best way.

“The Palace of Westminster [and] different [government] departments have been very quietly installing the best air cleaning filters…whilst at the very same time, telling everybody else to crack on [and that Covid] is not a problem.

“We don’t have to worry about the water we drink, because we invest in water treatment plants which filter and clean it to a high standard – it’s just one of those things we expect as a given.

"We wouldn’t drink dirty water, so why are we breathing dirty indoor air?”

A trial of air filtration systems - known as HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] units - carried out in classrooms in Bradford found an associated reduction in sick days of more than 20 per cent.

The results of that study have not yet been formally published, but Mr Watkinson said even if the figure was only 10 per cent, it would nevertheless “put a huge number of children back in the classroom”, given the prevalence of Covid-19 during the repeated waves of infection the world continues to experience, regardless of the season.

He said: “They would not be exposed in the same way and would not be at risk of getting Long Covid and [related] disability.

"I’m not sure the [government] grasps the finances of it, but it would seem to be logical – and [they] would actually save money by making this investment.

“Every child, every teacher deserves clean air in every classroom across the country.  An opportunity should be taken to do the right thing now, so we’re protecting this generation and future generations."

DfE data revealed the overall pupil absence rate across the country during 2022/23 was 7.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent in 2018/19, the last full school year before the pandemic began.

In a written answer to a parliamentary question on the subject of using air purifying units in schools, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said last September the DfE had provided more than 9,000 air cleaning units to “eligible settings”.

That followed the rollout of carbon dioxide monitors to all schools to enable them to monitor ventilation in teaching areas.

Mr Gibb said: “Where these monitors consistently identified poor ventilation that could not be easily remedied, schools were able to apply for department-funded air cleaning units (ACUs).

“In general, ACUs can help reduce airborne contaminants in poorly ventilated spaces. ACUs remove particulate matter, including virus particles, from the air to improve indoor air quality.

“The air purifiers provided by the department work using high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter technology. There is strong evidence from laboratory studies of the efficacy of HEPA filtration technology at removing airborne viruses from the air.

“However, although they help improve air quality, ACUs do not reduce CO2 levels or improve ventilation, so it is important that they are not used as a substitute for ventilation or a reason to reduce it.

“The department knows that sufficient ventilation can be challenging, particularly in the winter months when staff sometimes feel they need to choose between fresh air to reduce the risk of airborne illnesses, keeping classrooms warm and the impact of increased heating costs.”

The Department for Education was approached for further comment on air filters, but did not respond.