Politics

Coronavirus: Should the two-metre social distancing restriction be reduced?

The two-metre social distancing restriction has become a fact of life during the coronavirus pandemic, but that could be about to change.

Reports suggest Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considering reducing it to one metre in order to allow more businesses to begin operating again and schools to fully reopen in September.

Sky News takes a look at how the UK’s approach compares to other countries and the potential risks of making any changes in the weeks and months ahead.

What is the situation at the moment?

Since March, people in the UK have been told to maintain social distancing when around others from outside their own household.

This has meant trying to keep two metres (6.5ft) apart from others when outside, at work and in shops and supermarkets.

Government guidance acknowledges that “this will not always be possible”, but adds that the risk of infection increases the closer you are to someone with the virus.

“Public Health England recommends trying to keep two metres away from people as a precaution,” the guidance states.

“However, this is not a rule and the science is complex. The key thing is to not be too close to people for more than a short period of time, as much as you can.”

In enclosed spaces where social distancing is more difficult, the government says face coverings “can help us protect each other and reduce the spread of the disease”.

Why are there calls for it to be changed?

As the country continues to come out of the lockdown introduced towards the end of March to try and slow the spread of COVID-19, more aspects of day-to-day life are beginning to return to a semblance of normality.

But adhering to the two-metre restriction is proving to be easier for some than others.

Schools, for example, have been advised to limit class sizes to 15 pupils. They argue this limits their scope for welcoming back more pupils.

As well as allowing more children to return to education, supporters of a change argue it would allow more businesses, like pubs, restaurants and smaller shops, to reopen.

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith has said reducing it to one metre is the “number one and single most important priority to unlock the economy”.

“The hospitality sector simply can’t make a living at two metres,” he told the Daily Mail.

Damian Green, Theresa May’s deputy when she was PM, told the BBC it would make a “huge difference”.

“We’ve seen other countries do that, actually move from two metres to one metre, without any damaging effects so far,” he told Newsnight.

Mr Johnson has said he is keeping the restriction under “constant review” and has spoken of his hope that it can be reduced in the future.

But while it does appear that such calls are gaining momentum, a decision from the government does not seem imminent.

Is there more of a risk if the distance is reduced?

The simple argument against reducing the two metre restriction is that it would increase the risk of people catching COVID-19.

For some, especially those who have lost loved ones to the virus, relaxing it may seem like a reckless move while people continue to die from it.

A recent study in the Lancet suggested physical distancing of at least one metre lowers the risk of coronavirus transmission, but distances of two metres could be more effective.

It found that the risk of infection when people stand more than a metre away from the infected individual was 3%, and 13% if within a metre.

Modelling suggests that for every extra metre further away up to three metres, the risk of infection or transmission may halve.

But like so much of the response to the coronavirus, ministers have to make a risk assessment and attempt a balancing act.

In a sense, introducing lockdown and telling people to stay at home was the easy part. The message was unequivocal.

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