Coronavirus: should we socially distance at two metres or one?

New WHO study on most effective measures to curb Covid-19 spread may guide lockdown easing

UK lockdown coronavirus
(Image credit: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

The UK government is facing growing calls to relax the two-metre social distancing rule as the World Health Organization (WHO) publishes the findings of a major new study into the efficacy of such measures.

Senior Conservatives are urging Boris Johnson to consider reducing the required gap between people from different households to as little as one metre in order to kickstart the reopening of UK businesses and prevent wide-spread redundancies.

Greg Clark, chair of the Commons Science Committee, wrote to the prime minister last week to ask him to “urgently review” the rule. Citing advice from the Scientific Advistory Group of Emergencies (Sage), Clark told The Telegraph that “the difference between two metres and 1.5 metres may seem small but it can be the difference between people being able to go to work and losing their jobs”.

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WHO guidelines currently recommend a one-metre distance in order to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. However, the new analysis funded by the UN health agency found that standing this close to someone who is infected doubled the risk of catching the virus compared with maintaining a two-metre gap.

On the other hand, that risk is still fairly small, rising from 1.3% at two metres to 2.6% at one, reports The Sun, which is backing calls for the current rules to be scrapped in order to “pave the way for businesses such as pubs to reopen”.

The new study, outlined in a paper in The Lancet, also found that wearing a face mask can reduce the risk of catching the virus by up to 85%. However, the authors note that nothing can provide complete protection.

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Social distancing regulations currently vary from country to country, with Germany and Poland advising 1.5 metres, while Finland and Austria are recommnding a distance of one metre.

According to the BBC, the UK’s two-metre rule can be traced back to research carried out in the 1930s which found that droplets of liquid released by coughs or sneezes either evaporate quickly in the air or are dragged by gravity down to the ground.

But some researchers now fear that the coronavirus is carried not only in droplets, but can also be transported through the air in tiny particles called aerosols.

“If that is the case,” says the broadcaster, “the flow of wind from someone’s breath could carry the virus over longer distances.” This theory is supported by the findings of a study carried out at hospitals in China, which estimated that four metres was a better safe distance.

However, “what’s still not established is whether any virus that spreads further than two metres can still be infectious”, adds the BBC, which notes that scientists have “a long way to go” before they can offer conclusive answers about the potential risk.

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