Government review of two metre social distancing guidance
Over the last fortnight, a review panel, led by the Permanent Secretary to No10 and including the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, the Chief Medical Officer, and the Chief Economic Adviser to HM Treasury, has considered the efficacy of the government’s social distancing guidelines in the context of the current prevalence of the virus. They have considered the scientific evidence, the economic impact of social distancing, behavioural responses and international comparators.
There are severe economic costs to maintaining 2 metre distancing. With a 2 metre rule in place, it is not financially viable for many businesses to operate; industry bodies for example, have estimated that outlets in the hospitality sector could make only 30% of pre-COVID-19 revenues with 2m distancing, as opposed to 60-75% at 1m. In sectors that are currently closed (including in accommodation, food services and recreation), over 1.75 million jobs have been furloughed across the UK1. Many of these are at risk if reopening is not viable at 2 metres.
Some countries similar to the UK have recommended distances below 2m when prevalence has fallen and with other mitigations in place. France, Italy and Singapore recommend 1 metre, South Korea recommends 1-2 metres, and Germany, Australia and the Netherlands recommend 1.5 metres. Denmark and New Zealand have reduced their recommended distance from 2 metres to 1 metres with mitigations. Other countries remain at 2 metres.
The absolute risk of transmission between people is reduced as the prevalence of COVID-19 infection in the population declines. The evidence shows that relative risk may be 2-10 times higher at 1 metres than 2 metres without mitigations, and the potential for higher occupancy at 1 metre distancing will also affect risk. However, mitigations can reduce the risk at 1m, so that it is broadly equivalent to being 2m apart, noting that a precise and quantitative assessment of how much risk is reduced by mitigations is not possible.
Current guidance says that “where possible, you should maintain 2m between people”. The guidance should change to state that 2m or 1m with risk mitigation (where 2m is not viable) are acceptable, and that businesses should set out the mitigations that they will introduce in their risk assessment.