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Engineers want urgent action to address Covid-19 research gaps


National Engineering Policy Centre says more R&D is needed to create “infection-resilient environments”

A leading group of engineers has called for urgent action to address research gaps on the Covid-safe use of buildings and public spaces.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed costly flaws in the way we design, manage and operate buildings, according to a report from the National Engineering Policy Centre and commissioned by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.

“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 we have to control infection,” said Peter Guthrie, chair of the NEPC infection-resilient environments working group.

The report says the UK has a legacy of “modest knowledge, skills and capacity in how buildings are maintained, compounding patchy design and build quality”, which makes it difficult to know how to manage buildings and people’s movement within them to minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

“We must take action now to make sure that good practice in ventilation is widely understood and applied across workplaces and public buildings,” said Guthrie, who is also vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

While technology and innovation can help tackle Covid, they are not a “silver bullet”, and uninformed reliance on them could backfire, the report said, calling for more evidence on what works, where and when.

For example, it says the benefits of using various kinds of air-cleaning devices are often heavily marketed but not always clear.

The report says that research and development is needed to clarify issues such as acceptable minimum standards for ventilation, and more studies should be commissioned to fill knowledge gaps.

It says the public research funder, UK Research and Innovation, should work together with the national academies, government and the National Core Studies Programme to put in place an action plan to address key research gaps.

The centre also warns that there is an “urgent need” to plug skills and knowledge gaps in the sector, as well as to put in place the training, re-skilling and recruitment needed to fill them.

It recommends that the government “urgently map” the knowledge and skills requirements across the building industry, general businesses, and the engineering professions, and put in place plans to address the gaps identified.

Research Professional News has approached the government for comment.