“TWO METRES APART!!!”
This short, concise and very precise command has been drummed into us Brits over the last few months as one of the most effective ways we can help stop the spread of coronavirus.
That was until Boris Johnson announced the social-distancing rule will be cut to one-metre, but only where another protection – such as face coverings - is possible. It was soon dubbed the “one-metre plus” rule, and is applicable in England, and has paved the way for the government to allow pubs, restaurants, museums and cinemas to reopen from July 4 in a meaningful way..
But, given apparently drastic shift, is it safe? Let’s walk through the issues
What is the new coronavirus guidance?
The relaxed rule says people must stay two metres apart, but can come within one metre of each other from July 4 provided one “mitigation” is in place.
Among the protective measures listed were: a screen, facing away from each other, hand-washing, a face covering and minimising contact with others.
Johnson said the new rules will be reviewed on July 21 and if there is a resurgence of the disease, ministers could bring back some lockdown restrictions.
“Where it is possible to keep two metres apart, people should,” the prime minister.
“But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of one metre-plus, meaning they should remain one metre apart while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission.”
Why the change?
The country’s closed bars, pubs and restaurants, have been leading the calls for a one metre reduction.
The hospitality industry argues that operating with the strict two metre restriction is not financially viable, due to the limits in place on safe numbers of customers and staff in indoor spaces.
Those working in the sector say a one metre reduction would save thousands of jobs, but have warned that even with this change trade is only expected to be at just over half the level compared to the year before.
Who else could benefit?
Reducing the two metre social distancing restriction could also allow schools in England to reopen fully by September.
Although primary schools were encouraged to open to more pupils from June 1, many school leaders said they were not able to because of a lack of space for distancing.
Easing the restriction may enable more children to return to their education and also allow parents to return to work, especially those who cannot afford childcare.
So where does the two metre rule come from?
Research from nearly a century ago found that the droplets released in coughs or sneezes travel around one to two metres. Being the cautious nation of worriers that we are, authorities decided it would be best to stick to this upper limit.
Isn’t there anything more... modern?
In a thoroughly modern study published this very month in the medical journal The Lancet, scientists concluded that the risk of being infected is estimated to be 13% within one metre, but only 3% beyond that.
It concludes: “The findings of this systematic review and meta-analysis support physical distancing of one metre or more and provide quantitative estimates for models and contact tracing to inform policy.”
What do scientists say?
Scientists have argued that the risk of exposure to the virus reduces with increased physical distance.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) was told earlier this month that a one-metre distance could carry up to 10 times the risk of two metres.
But experts have also pointed out much is unknown about how far coronavirus can be transmitted via airborne droplets.
Some point out that larger droplets fall to the ground within one metre, but others have highlighted studies indicating smaller droplets can be projected up to eight metres away.
One factor that is practical, albeit weather-dependent, is the inside/outside distinction.
Researchers in Japan have estimated coronavirus is 19 times more likely to be passed on inside that it is outside. The UK could look to Lithuania for inspiration where there are plans to turn the capital of Vilnius into a vast open-air cafe.
What about the UK’s top scientists?
The government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has in the past said that the two metre rule is “relative” rather than “absolute” and could be changed based on the setting and the prevalence of Covid-19.
Prof Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, has previously suggested social distancing restrictions could be in place for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the final daily press conference, both stressed that mitigation measures must be properly adhered to.
Prof Whitty stressed that there was a risk coronavirus could start to increase in its spread.
“A lot of the changes are about emphasising things that we can do and it is really critical that individuals and firms take these really seriously,” he said.
“Because if we don’t take them seriously, then chains of transmission between households will be reestablished.”
He added: “It is absolutely critical people stick to the guidance that has been given, it’s a changed guidance for there are still very significant restrictions socially and there are very significant restrictions on business of different sorts.”
On the changes to the two-metre rule, Prof Whitty said it was a “balance of risk”.
“I think that this is a reasonable balance of risk,” he said, but it was “absolutely not risk-free”.
Sir Patrick added: “Two metres is safer than one metre if it is unmitigated. But if you add the mitigations, if you start looking at things like orientation – being side by side or back to back – is ventilation good? Are face coverings been worn? Are there screens in place?”
What do other countries do?
Guidance from the World Health Organisation states people should keep a distance of one metre from each other and China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania and Singapore are examples of countries that follow this.
South Korea goes with 1.4 metres and Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, 1.5 metres.
The US, imperial dinosaurs that they are, go with 1.8 metres (six feet).
Only Canada and Spain go the full two metres.
Anything else I need to know?
It’s important to remember that catching coronavirus from someone sneezing in your face isn’t the only way it can be transmitted – touching a surface contaminated with the virus and then touching your face is the other main route.
There is also the “aerosol” route – tiny particles small enough to travel in the air rather than being expelled in larger droplets from a cough, for example, and then falling to the ground.
Currently the jury is out on whether or not coronavirus can be airborne – it’s only been around for a few months so it’s just one of many unknowns.