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       Hazards, number 150, 2020
OUT OF TOUCH |  Stick with the two metre rule, whatever the prime minister says 
In most normal social or workplace circumstances, 1 metre physical distancing is tantamount to no physical distancing at all. In a Covid-19 pandemic, it might increase the risk of infection 10-fold, government advisers have warned. But Boris Johnson ignored the science, finds Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, and moved to a new 1 metre rule regardless.


If someone’s face was covered in weeping pustules, you’d not want to cosy up. But for coronavirus, described by Boris Johnson as the ‘invisible enemy’, the infected aren’t nearly so obvious.

Nonetheless, the prime minister had decided it is OK to get up close. In changes announced on 23 June 2020, the prime minister said a new rule would take effect on 4 July.

Declaring that “our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end,” the prime minister told the Commons: “Where it is possible to keep 2 metres apart people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of ‘one metre plus’, meaning they should remain one metre apart, while taking mitigations to reduce the risk of transmission.”

Covid-19 is a crap shoot when we go to work. The government’s decision to push us closer together will mean for some it becomes a dead cert.

It soon emerged Boris Johnson’s one metre plus decision was neither health- nor science-based. The Covid-19 infection rate was still worryingly high. France and Germany were seeing less than half the number of infections – and Germany has a larger population – while Italy had less than a quarter.

And the high rates came at high price. Office for National Statistics figures for England and Wales covering the period up to 25 May 2020 showed thousands of typically low paid 'essential' workers were already dead. Even before the opening of non-essential retailers, hairdressers, pubs and restaurants, workplace infection clusters were emerging nationwide.

Food for thought

On 29 June 2020, the week the relaxation of the rules came into effect, soaring infection rates in Leicester saw it forced into an extended lockdown. A Public Health England (PHE) rapid review noted: “Many of these incidents are related to food factories/outlets.”

A week before, a Covid-19 cluster had been identified at the Pladis biscuit factory and McVities supplier in South Wigston, to the south of the city. On 1 July, Walkers Crisps confirmed 28 staff at its Leicester factory had tested positive, with a ‘steady increase’ in confirmed cases through June.

A 30 June 2020 report from Labour Behind the Label claimed some garment factories in Leicester stayed open as normal throughout the coronavirus crisis and ordered workers to continue to report for duty even when they were sick.

Next behind Leicester on the late-June national coronavirus hotspots list was Bradford, home to many of the workers at the Cleckheaton-based Kober meat processing plant owned by Asda, which by 25 June had seen 125 workers test positive.

An infection cluster at the Cranswick meat processing factor in Barnsley saw three workers die of Covid-19. Barnsley was third in the PHE infections ranking.

In July, three West Yorkshire bed factories were hit by outbreaks. A Scottish call centre run by Sitel, undertaking track and trace for the NHS, was also hit. Hundreds of workplaces, from schools, to factories and supermarkets, had now reported clusters. It was becoming increasingly apparent the workplace was the new focus for coronavirus transmission.

Unions including Unite, ASLEF, RMT, TSSA, Usdaw, GMB and UNISON had predicted reduced physical distancing would increase the Covid-19 risks to workers. Their concerns had been echoed by a succession of experts, including members of the government’s SAGE advisory group.

Justifying the distancing cut, the prime minister said people would be encouraged to use “mitigation” – such as face coverings and not sitting face-to-face - when within 2m of each other. But masks and other PPE have frequently been unavailable, rationed or inadequate.

Short of walking off the job, physical distancing is frequently the only understandable and practicable measure available to workers to protect themselves on the job.

BACK OFF  The government has turned its back on workers, ignoring evidence that halving the 2m physical distancing rule will considerably increase the Covid-19 risk at work.

At barely arm’s length, the Covid-19 risk can still be substantial. Independent Sage, headed by Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser, concluded the 2 metre to 1 metre reduction and the other changes announced for 4 July would lead to an increased physical transmission of infection at a time when we are far from being out of the woods.

A Stirling University commentary on the evidence for and against lowering the separation limit, published on 22 June 2020, noted the arguments for a 1m rule “do not stack up.”

It added: “A limited but growing body of scientific evidence, based on a better understanding of particle physics and aerosols and supplemented by case studies of very recent clusters, continues to support a precautionary approach to 2m and its continuation in many settings where public and worker safety is at risk and there are no effective alternatives and no vaccines. The science for lowering the 2m distance, however, appears to be limited if not absent at this stage.”

Flimsy excuse

The risks were recognised in the expert advice informing the UK government. A 23 June 2020 expert review, ostensibly requested to guide the prime minister’s decision, noted: “There is evidence that the risk of transmission increases by 2-10 times at 1m compared to 2m and the potential for higher occupancy at 1m distancing will also increase risk if there are no mitigations.”

Professor Andrew Watterson, the lead author of the Stirling University commentary, commented: “The evidence to support the UK’s position on moving to a 1 metre plus social distance if 2m is not ‘possible’ is very flimsy.

“It accepts 2m is twice to ten times less risky than 1m and can’t say how effective mitigation measures would be because they haven’t been assessed properly. It does not mention a number of countries that retain a 1.8m and 2m social distance and the reason why they still do.”

WASHED UP  Boris Johnson’s approval rating has plummeted as the coronavirus crisis has progressed. His latest blunder, to rush people back to work and to enable more crowded workplaces under the new 1m plus rule, ignores the science and increases the risks of more deaths and further economic turmoil.

He added a supporting document on Covid-19 transmission and mitigating measures was “very strange and looks distinctly unscientific as we were promised an exhaustive and evidence-based report by government,” and was “neither a systematic review nor a rapid review of the evidence of research on 1m and 2m and airborne transmission of Covid-19 –  so the public remain uninformed.”

Others had urged greater caution. An April 2020 Journal of Infectious Diseases paper, authored by US and Australian infectious disease, engineering and fluid dynamics specialists, called for greater physical distancing, adding: “We found that the evidence base for current guidelines is sparse, and the available data do not support the 1- to 2-metre (≈3–6 feet) rule of spatial separation. Of 10 studies on horizontal droplet distance, 8 showed droplets travel more than 2 meters (≈6 feet), in some cases up to 8 meters (≈26 feet).”

The dedicated safety unit of UN’s specialist workplace agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), recommends 2m. Go to 1m plus, and you give employers a business-as-usual greenlight to cram staff in for a dose of close proximity working.

One case could mean losing some or all your workers for two weeks to self-isolation. An outbreak in Melbourne, Australia – where about 80 per cent of new cases were linked to transmission in workplaces – led the Victorian state government to introduce a state of emergency, a major shutdown and to a related surge in unemployment.
It’s not just lives at risk. Relaxing controls could kill your business and your job.

Evidence in evidence

Several critical factors should have told Boris Johnson that caution was a more advisable option. Studies have established that Covid-19 can spread with far greater ease than either the SARS or MERS viruses on which the original interventions were based.

Coronavirus infectivity is not limited to those in direct snot or spit droplet range – it can spread by aerosol or airborne transmission, which can carry the virus around a room or on the breeze. It is also peculiarly resilient, and can stick around and remain viable and infectious on surfaces for hours or even days.

And it is not just those with symptoms that are spreaders. It can be transmitted by people with no symptoms, with “substantial infectivity” during the incubation period. A succession of studies have demonstrated there are large numbers infected and capable of transmitting the infection, but that have not yet developed symptoms (presymptomatic) or who will never get sick (asymptomatic) [see: WHO knew?, Hazards 150].

Others, fearing for their jobs or unable to survive on reduced pay of statutory sick pay, might feel they have no option but to drag themselves into work when sick. We knew before the pandemic these pressures had led to widespread ‘presenteeism’ in British workplaces, with the working wounded routinely struggling in sick.

HANDS OFF  Shopworkers’ trade union Usdaw is urging retailers to stick with the already agreed joint safety guidance on social distancing in shops at two metres. Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said: “Usdaw worked with the British Retail Consortium on joint safety guidance for shops based on the two-metre rule and in our experience retailers have taken that seriously and are complying.” He added: “There is plenty of evidence to show that 2-metre separation is at least twice as safe as 1-metre. Independent SAGE warns that the risk of transmission is still too high to reduce social distancing rules indoors.” www.independentsage.org

The dangers of the government’s advice on the distancing shift from 2 metres to 1 metre are amplified as it assumes everything to be working perfectly at all times, including the alternative mitigating measures.

The prime minister told the Commons: “Whilst the experts cannot give a precise assessment of how much the risk is reduced, they judge these mitigations would make ‘1 metre plus’ broadly equivalent to the risk at 2 metres if those mitigations are fully implemented.”

But workplaces are full of variables – rush jobs, breakdowns, accidents, mistakes, misunderstandings, protective equipment shortages and, top of the list, mismanagement. We know we won’t always know if the person just over an arm’s length away is distributing the virus with every word and every breath.

It means we’ve already accepted that Covid-19 is a crap shoot when we go to work. The government’s decision to push us closer together will mean for some it becomes a dead cert.

Keep your distance: Is two metres too far or not far enough to protect from COVID-19 and who benefits and who loses if it is reduced?, Stirling University commentary, 22 June 2020.



Distancing cut risks more meat worker cases

Downgrading the two-metre social distancing rule risks causing ‘more outbreaks’ of coronavirus within the meat processing sector, Unite has said.

The union called for ‘significant intervention’ by both the government and employers to prevent Covid-19 spreading at meat processing factories to accompany any downgrading of the social distancing measures, including better health and safety regimes and improvements to testing and tracing.

The union said the prevalence of coronavirus outbreaks at meat processing factories also makes it incumbent on ministers and employers to ensure that workers, who need to self-isolate, can be either paid under the job retention scheme (JRS) or have their rates of company sick pay increased.

The union said it was ‘inevitable’ that some low paid meat factory workers on ‘exploitative contracts’, who should be self-isolating, will continue working because they are only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week.

Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said: “Many employers are barely taking notice of the two-metre social distancing rule as it is,” so a cut “for the meat industry in the current environment will simply give irresponsible bosses the excuse they need to do away with social distancing entirely.”


Schools need more teachers and space

While it is in favour of all children being back in school, teaching union NEU has warned that even with a one-metre rule, schools will need more teachers and more space.

Commenting on the prime minister’s decision to reduce social distancing to a 1 metre minimum and for the full reopening of schools to all pupils in September, Dr Mary Bousted, NEU joint general secretary, said: “Mathematics dictate that for this we need extra class spaces and extra teachers for the vast majority of schools. Government must support local authorities in making available public buildings, and encourage teachers who have left the profession, often due to excessive workload, to return.”

The NEU leader concluded: “It is now more vital than ever that Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson listen to the profession so that parents, teachers and pupils can be reassured that a return to school is as safe and as well planned out as possible for  the whole school community and wider society.”


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In most normal social or workplace circumstances, 1 metre physical distancing is tantamount to no physical distancing at all. In a Covid-19 pandemic, it might increase the risk of infection 10-fold, government advisers have warned. But Boris Johnson ignored the science, finds Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, and moved to a new 1 metre rule regardless.

Food for thought
Flimsy excuse
Evidence in evidence

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Distancing cut risks more meat worker cases
Schools need more teachers and space

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