Saturday, November 27

Scientists: 2m rule can be relaxed



The two-metre social distancing rule can be abandoned by businesses reopening after lockdown if they introduce other measures to reduce the spread of coronavirus, Government scientists have told ministers.

Following a political backlash against the two-metre rule, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) published a paper on Friday which set out protocols such as regular breaks, and getting workers to sit side by side that would make it much safer for people to be within one metre of each other.

Over the past few days, officials have begun discreetly contacting business groups to ask whether they would object to it being watered down, The Telegraph understands.

Downing Street is preparing to make a public announcement formally dropping the blanket two-metre rule after infections fall further, possibly within days.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed on Friday that infection in the community had dropped to just 0.06 per cent, while 12 areas saw no new cases last week. The figures suggest just one in 1,600 people have coronavirus, down from one in 1,000 in a week.

The move on the two-metre rule has come amid growing Government concern over the state of the economy. Figures released on Friday showed the UK economy suffered its worst-ever monthly collapse in April as the virus lockdown crushed GDP by more than 20 per cent.

Government scientists have told ministers it is up to businesses to carry out their own risk assessments about how they can operate safely as non-essential shops in England prepare to reopen on Monday.

Their research shows that a distance of one metre side by side, common in most offices, is as safe as facing someone two metres away.

On Friday, Boris Johnson said the Government was “working with the scientists” on when the two metre rule can be axed, adding: “What we’re looking for is the moment when we’ve got the numbers… down so far that we can really say that the two-metre rule is no longer necessary.

“We are doing a review right now and obviously, as we make further progress, I hope to say more.”

It came as Sage set out how businesses could mitigate risks in situations in which two-metre face-to-face distancing cannot be achieved.

The papers, released by its environmental and modelling group, show that a distance of two metres is safer than one in reducing the risk of virus transmission.

The research suggests that with the right safety measures including good ventilation, regular breaks, wearing of masks and the right positioning of staff so they do not directly face each other risks can be significantly reduced.

Earlier this month, a major Lancet study found the risk of infection is 1.3 per cent at two metres or 2.6 per cent at one metre.

But the new research says this does not consider the positioning of the person meaning the way they are facing or how the virus is likely to be transmitted.

When people are at close range and face to face, transmission is most likely to be through respiratory droplets, but aerosol transmission of fine particles can carry further depending on ventilation.

The new research says that sitting within one metre of a person side by side or back to back is as safe as facing a person at two metres when indoors.

“When people are side to side or behind one another, risk is via aerosols and so is determined by the influence of ventilation; at one metre the exposure risks would be similar to two metres when face to face in an indoor environment,” it says.

One business source said civil servants had been in touch in recent days asking if they would “kick up a fuss” if the Government cut the distance to one metre.

Government sources confirmed the calls had taken place but they said they were part of the usual liaison with business groups, adding that “there is always business stakeholder engagement, asking ‘just how badly do you feel about this’ to gauge reaction.”