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Little Britain: where the two-metre rule came from and why it is not actually a rule at all

I’ve got a surprise for you, dear reader. There is no such thing as the “two-metre rule” and there never has been.

In England at least, it is merely a guideline – a bit of advice. You can follow or ignore it as you see fit. It has no force in law and you are no more likely to be arrested for breaking it than for failing to wash your hands or allowing your children to play conkers.

We like rules in England, in much the same way as we enjoy an orderly queue. You know where you are with a rule, and many of us feel it would be more than our jobs are worth to stretch one, even a little bit. This is especially true in all matters pertaining to ‘elf and safety.

So it is with some trepidation that I have to tell you that the two-metre rule – the obsession of so many news stories and press conferences – is not a rule in England and never has been.

Here is how it is expressed on the Government’s official website (my italics): “Keep your distance if you go out – 2 metres apart where possible”.

And here it it is laid out by the Department for Business in its official Covid “guidance” for employers and employees: “Maintain two-metre social distancing, where possible

Where possible, you should maintain two metres between people… Where it’s not possible for people to be two metres apart, you should do everything practical to manage the transmission risk.”

The fact that the two-metre rule is not a rule and only a bit of (sensible) guidance, probably explains why the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty looks like he might bash his head against the lectern every time he is asked about it.

Here is how he explained it in a recent lecture: “Outside healthcare settings there are really two ways that people will catch this disease.

“The first of which is [flying] droplets. These are produced by people coughing or sneezing. You can also be talking, singing, even just breathing, and they [the droplets] go direct to people’s mouth or nose, to their mucous membranes.

“They tend to be carried a shortish distance. The World Health Organization estimates most of them within a metre but it can go beyond that. In the U.K. we say two metres is a much safer distance. But they can be carried occasionally even beyond that. 

“If you’re within that zone when people cough you can actually have them deposited on you.”

The second way we catch the virus, the Professor explained, is by touching our hands to surfaces the droplets have landed on and then touching our hands to our faces.

The original research on viral droplets dates back to the 1930s. Scientists found that droplets released by coughs or sneezes land within one to two metres. Following the precautionary principle, we opted for two metres in Britain.

This research has been replicated. In a recent study published in the Lancet medical journal, scientists evaluated recent data on how coronavirus spreads.

It estimated the risk of being infected was 13 per cent within one metre, but only three per cent beyond that. For every extra metre of distance up to three metres, the risk is further reduced by half. 

Importantly, face masks and eye protection were also found to very significantly reduce risk. Duration of contact is also a key factor.

So how should we regard the two-metre guidance? And more specifically, how should schools, shops and other businesses apply it?

The most important thing is to approach the issue critically, not literally. That is why it is guidance and not a law.

Take South Korea. It has had a good pandemic and also has a two-metre guideline. But it is applied where it makes sense and not where it doesn’t.

People are advised to keep “two arms lengths” away from each other generally but in restaurants and cafes, you can sit at just one metre from other patrons. The increased risk is mitigated by people from different households sitting in a row or in a zig-zag to avoid directly facing each other. The waiters wear masks.

“In Asia, distances have sometimes been talked about but there hasn’t been an obsessive fixation like there has been in the UK”, says our Asia correspondent Nicola Smith in Taiwan. 

“Social distancing has been seen as one of several measures that can be used in an overall package, including masks, hand hygiene. Metre rules have never been seen as the one and only solution”. 

Portugal has also taken a flexible approach. It recommends people keep a two metre distance where possible but in shops and other enclosed environments where it is not possible, everyone wears masks and washes their hands before entering. On the beach, where there is more space, the government suggests three metres between parasols.

Now compare this with literal Britain. Here is a note I have just received from my child’s school. I advise you to read it out loud in a “computer-says-no” voice: “Due to new government guidance received during half term and updated again last week, we are permitted to have a maximum of 25 per cent of the year group in school on a given day. There is no allowance for multiple groups to attend school on the same day. We have approached the Independent Schools Council to see if there is any flexibility in this ruling for a relatively small school like ours. Unfortunately, they have confirmed there is no flexibility in this 25 per cent rule”.

This is a British disease. We make up rules where none exist. If we are to survive this pandemic as a nation we have got to stop painting by numbers and engage our brains.

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

Source: Telegraph UK

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