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Social distancing helped virus control but cannot be the future

Ray Wilkes Shipley West Yorkshire BD18
01 June 2020

Roger Davies gives an excellent guide to socially distanced transport (‘Every piece of our transport system will be changed forever by Covid-19’ Viewpoint LTT 15 May). 

Reading between the lines, however, he implies a dystopian future where socially distanced hospitality and visitor attractions can only be afforded by the affluent. Most people would face a miserable and restricted life.

When the UK entered lockdown only about one in 400 people were infected, but this was doubling every few days. The country was clearly en-route to a public health catastrophe. Lockdown stabilised the situation, although many would argue, without invoking hindsight, it should have been done sooner.

Social distancing breaks the chain of infection and with a two metre distance outdoors the chance of infection is minimal. Indoors, social distancing is not quite so effective unless there is good ventilation. This compounds the problem for hospitality industries and public transport so social distancing cannot be anything but a short-term solution here.

Public transport, from planes to buses, would be an economic black hole if social distancing were applied long-term. For hospitality, pubs, cafes and restaurants, social distancing would require much higher prices and all but the very rich would effectively be excluded by price.

Long-term restrictions on these activities will have  knock-on effects for town centre shops and all tourist destinations. Retail is already damaged by an accelerated switch to on-line shopping, and to survive needs hospitality and entertainment as part of its offer. Holiday accommodation and attractions also need pubs, cafes and restaurants as part of their offer too.

Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye stated that “Social distancing does not work in any form of public transport, let alone aviation.”

The Government is looking to relax social distancing rules after lockdown, but to be economic bus and train passengers will have to occupy most seats and sit next to each other. The current thinking of 15 passengers in a train carriage and five on a single deck bus is economic lunacy. If this idea was abandoned, then another way forward might be found.

If there is a reversion to more car use, then we will have the problems of more road casualties, congestion and air pollution. It is not clear that a car journey is safer than travelling by bus; the reduced risk of Covid would be offset by in-car air pollution and the increased chance of a crash.

If the incidence of infected people was brought down by the lockdown to about 1 in 4,000 people or less and most of the infected people were isolated then the chance of meeting an infected person on a bus or in a pub would be remote.

The air travel industry is suggesting temperature checks on customers to exclude the infectious. Trained sniffer dogs, Covid-19 testing kits and apps could all have a part to play, along with education.

Social distancing and extra hygiene will still have a role. There is no need to put the vulnerable under house arrest, but they will need to take great care about social distancing. 

The hospitality and public transport industries need to argue the case for a different approach and explain it to the public so that they understand the arguments and are reassured by the reasoning. Most people will not want a life that consists only of work and staying at home, so they will have an incentive to listen.

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Oxfordshire County Council
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Oxfordshire County Council
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Oxfordshire County Council
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