UK coronavirus variant ‘should be the reason to reinforce social distancing’

Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
·3-min read

The increased infectiousness of the new coronavirus variant should be used as the rationale to reinforce social distancing guidelines, or increase the distance, an expert has said.

The comments come as reports suggest Government scientists want the recommended gap increased from one metre plus to two metres plus.

Experts say the bigger the distance, the better, as it allows more space for any virus expelled by people to be dispersed.

Professor Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at the University of Warwick, told the PA news agency the new UK coronavirus variant may be reason enough to consider increasing the distance.

He said: “For me that should form the rationale for this – to say, actually what we’ve got at the moment is a much more infectious virus.

“We know it’s clearly more transmissible, so you’re more likely to get infected with it than with the previous variant of the virus.

“Although it’s not been confirmed, I think it is looking very much like people who are infected – including asymptomatic people who are infected – make more of the virus so it’s even more of a reason for being really careful about social distancing, about hand washing, and about the use of face masks.”

He added the Government message should be that although these things should be done anyway, it is even more important now.

Prof Young told PA: “They’ve said it more or less, but it has not been as clearly articulated – that we’re in this very precarious situation at the moment, because of this variant.

“And that’s why we need to stick to the two metre plus now – it is ever more important.”

People walk over two metre social distancing markings
Government scientists reportedly want the recommended gap increased from one metre plus to two metres plus (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Prof Young said there have been a number of studies looking at the viability of the virus in different situations, and a lot of them have recommended at least two metres separation, with one suggesting 1.6 metres to three metres is a safe distance.

He explained: “I think the consensus from all these studies – and there are quite a number now – is that two metres plus is better than one metre plus.

However, Prof Young added that if people were properly adhering to the two-metre rule, and other social measures, then it should be enough.

Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor and clinical virologist, University of Leicester, said that three metres would give more space between people for the virus to disperse and become diluted and be removed by ventilation (indoors) or be blown away by the wind outdoors.

He told PA: “The exact degree of protection this offers over two metres will really depend on how closely this can be followed – almost impossible in supermarkets – but easier outdoors.

“Wearing masks will just add to this protection – as usual – especially if the three metre distancing is just physically impossible, like in most supermarkets.”