Covid-19: Why we must use common sense about social distancing – Stephen Jardine

Restaurants and pubs have to have a practical way to re-open in the age of the Covid-19 coronavirus, writes Stephen Jardine

Customers at Aldi in Camelon observe social distancing in the queue, but is two metres the right distance, asks Stephen Jardine.

When someone comes within two metres, most of us are now conditioned to feel a bit uncomfortable. Self-appointed Covid cops are everywhere chalking two-metre measurements on pavements with the same enthusiasm they bring to monitoring their neighbour’s recycling. The other day a jogger hissed “two metres” at me with a ferocity she probably otherwise reserves for cyclists and skateboarders.

However if the past two months have been all about the science, two-metre distancing stands little scientific scrutiny. The World Health Organisation says a distance of one metre is safe and many countries have adopted that distance or 1.5m. Here in the UK, the preference for two metres dates back to research in the 1930s which showed that the majority of droplets of liquid released by coughs or sneezes will land by that distance. However the science has moved on a bit.

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A Chinese study for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention this month concludes the nature of aerosol particles mean four metres is actually a safer distance, while high-speed cameras at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology captured a cough projecting specks as far as six metres.

If you want to avoid all risk attached to coronavirus, the only option is to stay at home in lockdown and never venture out. For most people, that is unreasonable and unbearable so the discussion then becomes about what is an acceptable risk to allow some measure of normality.

In New Zealand last week, pubs reopened on the basis of one metre distancing and that is a model other countries are keen to follow. Scottish brewer and pub chain Brewdog have reopened their bar in Oslo where one-metre distancing is in place and they want to see that model followed in the UK. “At two metres, we would operate at 40 per cent capacity. We could probably get to 70-75 per cent capacity with a one-metre ruling in place,” said the firm’s David McDowall.

Support for a one-metre approach also comes from Nic Wood, boss of the Edinburgh headquartered Signature Pubs. “Keeping people safe and feeling safe is the most important factor right now and the WHO recommends that is wholly possible with 1m spacing between people in our bars and restaurants. This rule would give us a fighting chance, safe jobs and protect the hospitality sector,” he said. In the short term, Signature have reopened their latest venue McLarens at Holy Corner as a community hub with food trucks, cocktails and craft beer in the outside space.

I understand Edinburgh Council is poised to give the green light to transforming George Street into a traffic-free space for eating and drinking over the summer. But despite the weather this week, in Scotland that season is notoriously short. We need a practical, longer term way of making pubs and bars viable and that requires common sense rather than measuring tapes.

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