In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far claimed the lives of thousands of people in the UK, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has imposed a three-week nationwide lockdown.
The prime minister has instructed British households to stay at home except for a strictly limited set of reasons, with police having powers to enforce the instructions with fines.
The new measures mean that people are only allowed to leave their homes “as infrequently as possible” to shop for basic necessities such as food, to take part in one form of exercise each day, to collect medication or care for a vulnerable person, and to travel to and from work, but only if this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.
With daily routines coming to a halt, it is inevitable that cabin fever will eventually set in and with weather forecasts predicting weeks of sunshine, many people will want to take advantage of Mr Johnson’s new advice and leave their homes once a day.
But is it safe to walk your dog through the neighbourhood or go for a jog along the beach?
While people are allowed to go outside for the aforementioned reasons, Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, says that people should still heed the governments warning to stay at least two metres apart.
“When people are outdoors, it’s more important than ever they take responsibility to practice good social distancing,” Head says. But what is best practice?
The prime minister has confirmed that while shops selling non-essential goods, such as clothing and electronics, are to remain closed until further notice, those that sell products deemed to be essential to the general public, including supermarkets, can stay open.
While retailers are employing measures to help shoppers keep their distance, such as limiting the number of customers allowed in store and placing floor distance guides at till points, there are a number of things people can do to ensure they practice safe social distancing.
We have taken further steps to make sure everyone has access to food and essential items, and to keep supporting our colleagues. Please read the full letter from our CEO here https://t.co/SCTDnpbvDi pic.twitter.com/HH9R9o7WEP— Sainsbury's (@sainsburys)March 21, 2020
“Supermarkets are tricky because they are indoor environments,” says Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University.
“Even here, the standard view in public health circles is being within two metres of someone for 15 minutes as presenting the risk. However, most closer contacts in supermarkets are fleeting and low-risk.
“If there is a queue at the check out, it is worth standing further apart than usual, and supermarkets should manage access to prevent dense crowds forming, but that is really as far as they need to go.”
It is also important to continue practising good hygiene after using a touchscreen till point.
Social distance done right – Tesco Skipton NHS staff Queue pic.twitter.com/5fKLHNRVSm— Chris (@AiredaleDodger)March 22, 2020
While the British Retail Consortium has stressed that stores are increasing the number of deep cleans they perform throughout the day, Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist from the University of Sussex, says customers should not feel embarrassed about wiping down the screen beforehand.
“Take something to wipe down the till before using and wash your hands at the first possible opportunity,” Dr Macciochi says, adding that people should only use touchscreens when absolutely necessary.
Parks and dog walking
With members of the public permitted to venture outside once a day to take part in a form of exercise, Professor Dingwall says that while it is important to remain social, people should not get too close.
“The two-metre recommendation is not exact science – brushing past someone while jogging or saying hello when walking the dog is zero to minimal risk,” he explains.
“However, it is probably not a good idea to jog in close company with anyone other than a member of your own household or to stand around chatting with other dog walkers, but that shouldn’t stop you from being civil. Social interactions are important for well-being.”
Dr Macciochi agrees, adding that people should try and exercise alone and in areas that are not densely populated.
In response to Government advice, we’re urging all walkers to avoid travel and to walk locally 🚶🏡
Our priority is to protect the health of our members, volunteers and staff and help suppress the spread of #COVID19
We're reviewing our guidance daily ➡️ https://t.co/wAUsWFFu4q pic.twitter.com/v8ULcxLr3j— The Ramblers (@RamblersGB)March 23, 2020
“Stick to unusual routes rather than the ones that would normally be popular,” she suggests.
“Try going at first light early in the morning or evening or if possible take a drive to a remote area in the countryside. Don’t plan to meet friends or run with people or running clubs.”
The walking charity Ramblers UK has also advised people to avoid busy places, including “popular parks, beauty spots or beaches” and to “avoid touching gates, fences etc”.
“If you do, clean your hands with anti-bac and wash your hands as soon as possible,” the charity said in a statement.
While public transport is still running – albeit with a reduced service – London mayor Sadiq Khan has urged people to top all non-essential use of buses and trains, adding that the transport network is being kept open primarily for key workers to travel to work.
But, is it possible to practice safe social distancing while using public transport?
“If people must use public transport, then give those around you as much space as possible,” Mr Head says, before suggesting that people wash their hands thoroughly before leaving the house and when arriving at their workplace.
Let me be clear:
Londoners must stop all non-essential use of public transport now.
This is a matter of public safety. pic.twitter.com/un39HlJ9Xx— Mayor of London (gov.uk/coronavirus) (@MayorofLondon)March 20, 2020
Professor Dingwall adds that travelling to work is subject to the same two-metre principle with the added risk that people will find themselves in a confined space for much longer.
“Cutting services is not necessarily a good idea if it provokes more crowding on the services that remain, but as an individual, you cannot really do anything about that,” he says.
“If there is space, use it. If there isn’t space, complain to the transport operator, local media or your MP.”
Medicine is still considered an essential, meaning that pharmacies are remaining open for people to collect medication and health products during the lockdown.
With people still able to pick up their own medicine, or medicine for people they are caring for in the coming weeks, pharmacies are taking action to ensure that the government’s social distancing measures remain in place.
“My local pharmacist has now put lines on the floor to indicate where the queue should stand,” Mr Head says.
“I think this is helpful, and can help to empower people stood in the queue to speak out if the person in front or behind stands too close.”
Professor Dingwall agrees, adding that many other branches are limiting the number of customers that can enter the pharmacy at one time.
“Basically the principles are the same as for supermarkets – try not to get too close to other customers for too long,” he explains.
“If you are a heavy and regular user of prescribed medication, consider getting it delivered, although this won’t work for everyone.”