In the age of Covid-19, how far should we be physically distancing?

Ever since the UK started social (or, more accurately, physical) distancing in the face of the coronavirus crisis, we have been observing a 2-metre rule. But where does this guidance come from and is it the ‘right’ measure?

In fact, most older people – who are the most vulnerable – are not so familiar with metric measurements and therefore we are often told that 2 metres equates to 6 feet but in fact it is just over 6.5 feet. I suppose the government felt that a whole number was presentationally clear and that 2 was better than 1.

In recent days, however, the authorities have acknowledged that 2 metres is a “precautionary approach” and accepted that 2 metres is out of line with the advice in most other countries and with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Other countries have opened for 1.5 metres. These nations include Australia, Germany and The Netherlands. Some countries have judged that 1 metre is sufficient. These nations include China, Singapore and France. The WHO advice is 1 metre.

For some reason, Korea has gone for an approach that is equivalent to 1.4 metres.

The varied advice on physical distancing may or may not have made a difference during the lockdown phase with minimal outdoor activities allowed. I suspect that, in clinical terms, the difference between 1 metre and 2 metres was tiny.

But the varied advice matters a good deal now that we are planning a return to work and the opening up of businesses including shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs. The difference between 2 metres and 1.5 and especially the difference between 2 metres and 1 metre would make a massive difference to the economic viability of many financially vulnerable businesses.

Expect the advice in the UK to be reviewed and revised.

One Comment

  • Roger Darlington

    From today’s “Guardian”:

    The two-metre distancing rule could be relaxed

    Asked about this by the Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the science and technology committee, the prime minister said he hoped it could be reduced, which would aid public transport, and pubs and restaurants.

    “My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down, in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance, which I think will be particularly valuable in transport and clearly the hospitality sector,” he said.

    When Clark asked if he could instruct the government’s Sage scientific advisory committee to look into the issue, Johnson said: “I cannot only make that commitment, I can tell you I’ve already done just that.


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