Reducing the two metre social distancing requirement to one metre could double the risk of coronavirus infection, new research out on Tuesday (June 2) has found.
The research, part-funded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and published in the Lancet, will cast doubt over lobbying by the hospitality industry in recent weeks to relax social distancing measures so that restaurants, pubs and other outlets can operate at greater capacity once they reopen.
It also throws into question the decision in Northern Ireland to open up hotels and tourist accommodation from July 20, which poses a serious risk to the 2m distancing rules and which Unite has slammed as reckless.
The Lancet conducted a meta-analysis of observations of Covid-19 alongside other related virus such as Sars and Mers. The research found that keeping more than a meter apart from other people reduced the risk of infection to 3 per cent, while maintaining 1m distance reduced the risk to only 13 per cent.
Commenting on the findings, University of Edinburgh professor of public health Linda Bauld said that the new research “shows that physical distancing matters”.
“There have been plenty of complaints that the guidance in the UK on 2 metres distance is excessive because it is more than in other countries. But this review supports it,” she noted.
“Maintaining this distance is likely to reduce risk compared to 1 metre. Thus, where possible, this is the distance that retailers and employers should use as more premises and workplaces reopen in the future.”
Northern Ireland Executive decision slammed
The findings in the Lancet come as the Northern Ireland Executive announced on Monday (June 1) that it would begin opening up the hospitality industry, with hotels and other tourist accommodation such as hostels and B&Bs allowed to reopen from July 20.
Unite has slammed the rush to open up the hospitality industry, noting that this has happened at the hands of lobbyists whose only interest is profits.
Unite hospitality organiser Neil Moore explained that he had written to all the Northern Ireland Executive Ministers to protest this week’s announcement by the Economy Minister to reopen hotels and other accommodation without any effective means of enforcement on basic infection controls.
“Far from being welcomed by hospitality workers, today’s announcement has caused widespread fear and concern among those who face the prospect of returning to work in unsafe working conditions,” he said.
“This decision appears driven by the need to secure the profits of the super-wealthy individuals who own much of the hospitality sector here rather than the concerns for workers or public health. It certainly isn’t to protect jobs – in the immediate aftermath of the announcement workers in a number of large chains were warned of pending redundancies and attempts to impose contract changes to reduce pay and T&Cs.”
Moore noted the tourism working group placed in charge of overseeing infection control could not be trusted because it is a “business cabal composed overwhelmingly of business owners excluding any trade union or worker representation”.
“It’s like leaving a fox in charge of the hen-house – workers will have absolutely no faith in their ability to oversee safe reopening.”
Moore went on to criticise those in the hospitality industry who are lobbying to reduce social distancing measures from 2m to 1m apart.
“The consequences of such a downgrading for workers and public health could be devastating – making likely a second peak and the need to revert to an economically-damaging second lock-down,” he said.
“Where operators have already reopened to provide a takeaway service demand is many multiples operating capacity, leaving workers facing pressures on one hand to meet unachievable order targets while on the other being threatened with punishment if they break social distancing rules. Bosses often point-blank refuse to provide Risk Assessments and many even engage with the union in any way whatsoever.”
Moore added that the two meter social distancing rule “must be defended and effectively enforced” while he said that Unite was demanding that where outlets reopen “demand must be capped at a level coherent with the ability to deliver orders safely and workers partially employed should continue to be supported through a flexible furlough scheme guaranteeing their income.”
He also called for roving health and safety reps, which the government in Scotland has introduced and which have been legislated for in England and Wales, to be extended to Northern Ireland as well.
“Unite remains steadfast on 2m social distancing rule”
Unite hospitality organiser in Scotland, Bryan Simpson, told UniteLIVE how the union has played a decisive role in securing roving health and safety reps in Scotland.
“Alongside our friends at the STUC, Unite Scotland have successfully lobbied the Scottish Government to ensure progressive guidance is issued to employers which include the recognition of roving health and safety reps to support those workplaces where unions are not present,” he said. “This is a significant step in the right direction in ensuring that trade unions remain the driving force behind a safer workplace for our members.”
Simpson reiterated the necessity of maintaining social distancing rules, which today’s research has found is proven to be effective in stopping transmission of the virus.
“We remain steadfast on the 2m social distancing rule,” he said. “If it is not possible for employers to ensure adherence of this whilst maintaining current operations, then those employers should reduce their footfall of customers and utilise flexible furlough to keep workers at 100% of wages.”
Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull agreed and explained why reducing social distancing from two meters to one was unacceptable.
“We are concerned at the developments in Northern Ireland as we have seen no convincing arguments that one metre distancing is safe for our members,” he said.
“One metre distancing will result in higher capacity of customers and therefore busy shifts where distancing will become impossible in any practical sense. We would strongly resist any move to reduce to one metre anywhere in the U.K. and will fully support the right of members to stop work if they believe their health is in immediate danger.”
By Hajera Blagg