CIEH has renewed calls urging the government to resist pressure to ditch the 2m rule and reveal how the national contact tracing system is working, in light of a report showing the vital nature of physical distancing in combination with contact tracing.
Physical distancing combined with manual and app-based contact tracing was demonstrated, in a study in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, to bring the R rate well below 1.
But after almost three months of lockdown, businesses are suffering and there have been reports that the government is considering reducing 2m physical distancing to 1m.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned a review into the 2m rule and said there was “room for manoeuvre” as the number of cases falls. The review aims to report back in the next few weeks. Pubs and restaurants are due to reopen on 4 July.
CIEH’s Northern Ireland director Gary McFarlane said: “The World Health Organisation guidance calls for ‘at least’ 1m social distancing. A recent Lancet study indicated a relatively small difference in the risk/rate of infection between 2m and 1m. However, with no social distancing (ie, under 1m) the risk increases significantly.
“What is the likely impact on people's psychology if we now reduce the guidance to 1m? Anecdotally it appears that already 2m is in reality only being observed loosely. If we decide to go down to 1m we may find that in practice it results in no physical distancing at all for a lot of scenarios.
“We are on the cusp of opening up hospitality businesses and there is huge pressure to take social distancing from 2m to 1m. If that were to happen, given the setting and the addition of alcohol in the mix that probably means in restaurants and pubs no social distancing at all.”
It’s not clear at what stage the national contact tracing scheme it at, and the app has been repeatedly delayed with ministers now saying it will not be ready before the winter.
McFarlane, who has written a blog about contact tracing and physical distancing, added: “If we don’t have our contact tracing properly operational we could be increasing the risk of a second wave of infections – look at what’s happening in Beijing. They had in excess of 50 days of no infections. And now, within a matter of days they have hundreds, and are facing another possible emergency with rising case numbers. But they had a much more stringent lockdown than in the UK.
“We don’t know if contact tracing in England is as yet fit for purpose, and therefore my concern would be that the government needs to be very careful at the speed at which we are lifting restrictions as we don’t want to be back having to re-impose lockdown. I genuinely don’t know how the public would react to this – would we get the same level of compliance as first time around?”
“We need a combination of public health measures, including both physical distancing and a robust track, test, and isolate system.”