22 Sep 2022

Education Ministry rejected MIQ air purifiers during Omicron surge

9:45 am on 22 September 2022
Students at Sutton Park undertaking lessons while in level 2.5 and compulsary mask wearing

More than 3000 of the second-hand air cleaners were offered for installation in schools in March. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

The Ministry of Education turned down air purifiers taken out of MIQ hotels for use in schools at a time when Omicron was surging and it was still waiting for its own order to arrive in the country.

More than 3000 of the second-hand air cleaners were offered to schools in March 2022, when Covid-19 community case numbers were in the tens of thousands each day.

Instead the filters were snapped up by hospitals, dental clinics and other community providers.

Health sociologist Dr Andrew Dickson was among parents who bought air purifiers for schools earlier this year.

He spent $1500 on two for his children's school in Ranfurly and said the MIQ air cleaners would have been welcome.

"Absolutely I would've used them. I would've had them in there in March the minute I could," he said.

"They're incredibly useful, particularly coming into winter when it was getting cold and there were loads of classrooms that could have done with that kind of stuff."

Temperatures dip into the negatives on winter mornings in the Central Otago town, and Dr Dickson said opening windows for better ventilation - as recommended by the government based on a NIWA report - was impractical.

"I can see no sense in all in that. It seems like a decision they've probably made based on the NIWA report but I don't think they thought through the realities of what was coming down the path and they should have been taking any help they could get."

Come mid-April, the Ministry of Education had delivered 450 air purifiers to schools - another 4500 arrived at the start of winter.

Education Ministry associate deputy secretary for property delivery, Sam Fowler, said it did not accept the MIQ air cleaners in March because it had its own on order and believed that would be enough.

"The ministry was approached by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment in March 2022 regarding acquiring some of the air cleaners coming out of MIQ facilities," he said.

"At the time, the ministry was well advanced in an open market procurement for air cleaners, and therefore let that process run its course. Our procurement process, and the resulting devices purchased and made available to schools, was effective in meeting our needs."

The Ministry of Health confirmed 3800 air purifying units from MIQ hotels went to hospitals, dental clinics and community providers - none to schools.

A Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment spokesperson said air filtration units were installed in shared spaces in MIQ facilities, such as swabbing rooms, lifts and corridors and quarantine rooms.

MIQ was responsible for cleaning and replacing the filters while the purifiers were in use at facilities, but was not involved in their distribution for reuse.

Indoor air quality expert and University of Otago professor Dr Julie Bennett said the second-hand MIQ purifiers could have been useful.

"There may well have been a host of reasons why they weren't able to accept them, things like needing to change the filters in them but for those schools that weren't able to ventilate well they may have been useful to use," she said.

"First and foremost we want schools to be really well ventilated and if that isn't able to be achieved then the next course of action could be using something like an air purifier."

As of this month, the Ministry of Education said more than 13,500 air cleaners have been provided to schools throughout the country and more were available on request.

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