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Social distancing research fuels on-trade debate

Published:  02 June, 2020

New research into the effectiveness of social distancing measures has renewed debate in the on-trade about the challenges of re-opening for business.

The research, published in the Lancet and part-funded by the WHO, supports the WHO’s guidance that people should stay at least 1 metre apart, which is widely followed in most countries.

The UK is unusual in its insistence on a two metre rule. Some countries, among them Germany and Australia, have a 1.5 metre rule in place.

At below 1 metre, the research suggests, the likelihood of infection is around 13%. At 1 metre that reduces to 2.6%, and at 2 metres it reduces to 1.3%, with the risk halving again up to 3 metres.

Responding to the research, Stephen Finch at London’s Vagabond Wines, said: “It’s telling that the WHO recommends 1 metre, yet the UK is virtually alone in the world at 2 metres.

“The incremental reduction in transmission risk from a 2 metre policy is minimal; the economic damage from that extra metre is massive.  

“Most hospitality businesses are not viable under 2 metre social distancing.”

His concerns are widely shared across the trade, which has called for reform to the social distancing measures. Speaking to Harpers last week, Stefan Neumann MS, director of wine at Dinner by Heston and Mandarin Oriental, said: “At Heston, we’re lucky to have a big space of 80-120 covers for lunch.

“If we halve that, we’re still able to make decent living. We just don’t seat every second table.

“But I feel for smaller restaurants who don't have the freedom to do the same."

Prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons liaison committee last week that he supported revising the guidance to help support the hospitality sector and the wider economy.

“My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down, in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance, which I think will be particularly valuable in transport and clearly the hospitality sector,” he said.

However, public health experts remain cautious about reducing social-distancing guidelines in the UK.

“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,” Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian yesterday.

“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.

“This is going to be very difficult in some settings but is important and we’ll all need to get used to maintaining this distance for some months to come.”