There are proven reasons why we need to distance ourselves from others outside our own household to control the spread of COVID-19 – the virus is transmitted when people are in close contact with each other.

The term 'social distancing' is being used by the Government, and subsequently being used by everybody else, but is it the correct terminology?

Humans are inherently social. We are not special in this way, in most animal species social behaviour is important. Although we may share some broader aspects of our social behaviour with more primitive species, human social behaviour is more complex but no less important for our health and survival (Young, 2008).

So, should we be 'socially distancing' or 'physically distancing'?

The term 'social distancing', implies that you need to be distant from socialising. This sounds like you must be socially separate from your family and friends, i.e. not interact with them. While physical distancing simplifies the concept that you need to be physically distant or separate from another person (or object).

Staying in touch with people assists the human connection we all need to thrive daily (being social), while physical distance is vital to slow down the transmission of COVID-19 amongst people.

Why is it a 2m distance?

This originally came from studies in the 1930s, where scientists found that respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, would land within 1-2m. However, in light of COVID-19, more recent studies have been carried out, showing that coughs can travel up to 6m and sneezes can travel up to 8m in a 'gas cloud' (Bourouiba, 2020). However, trying to keep distances of up to 8m (or 26 feet), which is approximately 4 times the length of an average UK size bed, is going to be impossible to do, which is why we are being told to 'catch' sneezes and coughs either in tissue or the crease of the elbow.

Is a 1m as effective as 2m distance?

The simple answer to this question is no. 1m is good but 2m is better. Halving the distance from 2m to 1m, more than doubles the chance of transmission. At 1m the risk of being infected is 13%, but at 2m the risk of being infected is 3% – for every 1m further away in distance, the relative effect of the risk of transmission is 2.02 (Chu, et al. 2020).

Guidance for physical distancing

  • Work remotely (wherever possible), whenever you have the chance
  • Avoid physical meetings. Use online conferencing, email or the phone when possible, even when people are in the same meeting
  • Unavoidable in-person meetings should be short, in a large meeting room where people can sit at least 2m from each other; avoid shaking hands
  • Eliminate unnecessary travel and cancel or postpone nonessential meetings, gathering, workshops and training sessions
  • Do not congregate in communal areas (kitchens, copier rooms, post room, etc). Keep 2m apart when possible
  • Avoid using lifts, wherever possible. If they must be used, limit their use to 2 people and ask them to face away from each other
  • Bring lunch and eat at your desk or away from others (avoid lunchrooms and crowded restaurants
    • If you decide to eat at your desk, make sure you clean your desk before and after; and try and 'get away' from your desk by going for a walk
  • Stagger lunchtimes, wherever possible
  • Avoid public transportation – try to either walk, cycle, or drive. If unavoidable, go in early or late to avoid rush-hour crowding on public transportation
  • Limit recreational or other leisure classes, meetings, activities, etc, where close contact with others is likely
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References

Young, SN. The neurobiology of human social behaviour: an important but neglected topic.  J Psychiatry Neurosci 2008; 33(5): 391-392

Bourouiba, L. Turbulent Gas Clouds and Respiratory Pathogen Emissions:  Potential Implications for Reducing Transmission of COVID-19.  JAMA Insights; 2020: 4756

Chu, DK, et al. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.  Lancet; 2020: 31142-9

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