This article explains what the rules are in Northern Ireland regarding the social distance between people. It also discusses the evidence regarding lessening the current 2 metre distance.

[This article is part of the COVID-19 Information Dissemination (COVID-19 ID) Project — a partnership between Community Development and Health Network (CDHN) and FactCheckNI. Its aim is to improve people’s health literacy about COVID-19 by providing accurate and up-to-date information that will increase knowledge, understanding and confidence and enable people to make good health decisions.]

Northern Ireland context

In Northern Ireland, for the first three months of lockdown, public health guidance stated that if you had to leave the place where you live, you had to maintain a social distance of at least 2 metres (approximately 6 feet 6 inches) between you and anyone outside of your household, to minimise your exposure to COVID-19 and the potential to spread the infection.

On Thursday 25 June, the Northern Ireland Executive amended their guidance around social distancing. While people should still aim to stay 2 metres apart, First Minister Arlene Foster said that from Monday 29 June, “A minimum 1 metre distance between individuals can be considered acceptable in circumstances where appropriate mitigations are made.”

Distance, although important, is not the only factor; environment, duration of time spent, and crucially the rate of community transmission of the infection are all vital in managing COVID-19.

The Department for Communities has produced Guidance for Urban Centres and Green Spaces, which “contains information on assessing possible issues and provides some examples of interventions that may be undertaken by the owners and operators of public spaces to keep people safer as and when the restrictions are relaxed and these places become busier”. It focuses on five principles for safer urban centres and green spaces during the period of COVID-19:

  1. Social distancing;
  2. Protecting people who are at higher risk;
  3. Face coverings;
  4. Cleaning; and
  5. Hygiene — hand washing.

Schools and the changes to social distancing

On 18 June 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive announced that the 2 metre distance will be reduced to 1 metre for children returning to school on 24 August (5:08), following advice from the Public Health Agency and the Chief Medical Officer on the basis of ‘protective bubbles’ being established for all school aged children under year 11. The protective bubbles approach will organise children into small groups with consistent membership to reduce risk. All school aged children above year 11 should practice social distancing.

This 1 metre reduction aims to allow almost full class sizes to resume, but with social distancing in place. The Minister for Education, Peter Weir, issued guidance on 19 June for schools and teachers, outlining the plans and scientific guidance that informed the change. In studies to date, it has been found that the rate and severity of infection in under 20 year olds is significantly lower than the rest of the population, and people in this age group are around half as likely to contract the infection.

This guidance will be reviewed throughout the summer prior to children returning to school. Northern Ireland was the first region in the United Kingdom to announce reducing the 2 metre social distancing guidance in any circumstances.

On 23 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a “one metre plus” rule for England would come into effect from 4 July, but indicated that people should remain 2 metres apart, if possible. Other mitigating measures were suggested to limit transmission, including not sitting face-to-face, readily-available hand-sanitiser, and limiting the number of people in enclosed spaces. This was in response to calls from business leaders to relax the distance given the impact on the profitability of businesses and ahead of restaurants and pubs reopening on the 4 July.

Why was the safe distance initially set at 2 metres?

Countries across the world have taken different approaches to the distance they deem to be sufficient for safe social distancing:

  • the UK’s 2 metres was the furthest distance, which Spain and Canada also adopted;
  • the US advises 6 feet (c. 1.8 metres);
  • Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands advise 1.5 metres;
  • South Korea has opted for 1.4 metres; and
  • China, France, Lithuania, Hong Kong, Denmark and Singapore advise 1 metre.

The social distance aims to counteract how the virus travels. As understood scientifically, when someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks, they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth, which may contain virus. These droplets launch into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby which are then inhaled into the lungs.

If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease. The more prolonged the contact with an infected person the greater the exposure and the higher the risk of contracting the disease. According to SAGE scientists, the group advising the UK government, transmission can occur quickly, therefore there is no safe minimum duration of time spent with someone who is infected.

Is 1 metre safe?

The World Health Organisation has advised to maintain “at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance” between yourself and others, and to avoid crowded places if it is not possible to maintain at least 1 metre distance. However, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States argues that 6 feet (1.8 metres) is the optimum distance based on evidence gathered from other viruses. As COVID-19 is a new virus, scientists are still gathering evidence of how it travels and have used other viruses as a proxy for knowledge.

According to a recent article published in The Lancet, the authors found that infection transmission was reduced significantly when at least 1 metre distance was maintained. The risk of transmission reduced the further distance was maintained

“From a policy and public health perspective, current policies of at least 1 m physical distancing seem to be strongly associated with a large protective effect, and distances of 2 m could be more effective… Hence, the results of our current review support the implementation of a policy of physical distancing of at least 1 m and, if feasible, 2 m or more.”

This article was originally published on 22 June 2020.

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