Social distancing can limit the chance of catching coronavirus to under 3%, according to the most comprehensive study so far.
Keeping one metre apart reduces the risk of transmission to 2.6%, while a two-metre gap decreases the chance of infection by a further 50%.
The international report, published in The Lancet, analysed data from 172 studies in 16 countries.
It found that by wearing a face mask there is just a 3% chance of catching Covid-19.
Eye protection lowers the risk to 5.5%.
Although some of the evidence is considered “low certainty”, the study provides the clearest picture yet that social distancing measures and face coverings will be key in slowing the spread of the virus and allowing lockdown restrictions to be eased safely.
However, the report warns that even combining and properly using face masks, goggles and social distancing doesn’t provide complete protection.
The authors suggest that healthcare workers should wear respirators rather than surgical masks for “greater protection”.
Governments across the world have taken different approaches to safety measures, including social distancing and the compulsory wearing of face masks, in part due to conflicting scientific opinions.
In France, China and Hong Kong, parts of the hospitality sector have reopened with a one-metre rule in place, while Spain has far stricter mandatory face mask rules than most other countries in Europe.
The aim of the report, which combines studies from around the globe and analyses all available evidence, is to help determine which measures might reduce transmission.
However, the report also says that a surge in demand for face masks could “divert supplies from health-care workers and other caregivers at highest risk for infection” and that governments need to “quickly address access issues for face masks to ensure that they are equally available for all”.
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As lockdown in the UK begins to ease, Boris Johnson faces a difficult balancing act between preventing a second wave of the virus and the risk that some businesses could collapse if the rules are too stringent.
The hospitality industry has begun lobbying for the social distancing guideline to be cut from two metres to one. The Lancet report will be used as evidence that venues can start to reopen.
Matty Hall, who co-owns The Lexington pub and concert venue in Angel, says that a two-metre rule would reduce capacity from 200 down to 30, meaning it wouldn’t be financially viable to reopen.
As well as ensuring tables are spaced apart and the bar sectioned off, they would have to put a system in place for using the toilets and only one person could use the stairs at a time.
“With one metre we might be able to pay some of the bills but we certainly wouldn’t be able to turn a profit or run in that manner indefinitely”, says Mr Hall.
“It would perhaps slow us going bust”.
However, housing minister Simon Clarke stressed the two-metre rule was “based on the advice of our scientific community”.
“Obviously we’re determined to make sure that we do keep the public safe,” he told Sky News’ Kay Burley @ Breakfast show.
“We follow the best advice that we can commission.
“The UK has a fantastic globally respected scientific community and that’s the readout they’ve given us.”
He added: “We believe that it is right that we maintain two metres as the appropriate guideline for people to be apart from others.”
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