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Does measuring social distance in metres lead to Covid-19 confusion?


AS the coronavirus crisis escalates, one detail has gone generally unremarked – the official measurement for social distancing is given in metric.

Government advice is to leave a gap of two metres between yourself and other people to avoid the spread of infection.

Admittedly, it’s an easily remembered figure. And, 45 years after the Government formally endorsed metrication, most older folk brought up with Imperial measurements of feet and inches have acquired some grasp of how to do a conversion.

But metric still remains something of a foreign language to many and a little mental manipulation may still be needed to turn two metres into its Imperial equivalent of approximately 6ft 6in.

Does it matter? Very much so, according to TCW reader Stephen Speakman, who says: ‘My point of real concern is that virtually all official (and many commercial) pronouncements on social distancing only use the metric system, when most people young and old in the United Kingdom think in terms of Imperial for height and length.

‘People older than 45 years of age often struggle to think in metric at all and therefore metric pronouncements are lost upon them.

‘If we are serious about distancing measures saving lives, then surely it is rank madness to preclude a sizeable segment of the population from understanding the distance concerned by using an alien method of measurement?’

The metric controversy has, of course, a long history, tied inextricably to Britain’s membership of the EU. It gave rise to several ‘Metric Martyrs’ – traders who stubbornly stuck to the Imperial system and fell foul of the law. The most famous was 36-year-old Sunderland greengrocer Steve Thoburn, who in 2001 was fined for selling fruit and veg in pounds and ounces. 

Even today, although the EU later effectively retreated on metrication enforcement, it remains something of a minefield in Britain, with the new and the old system living awkwardly side-by-side in many situations.

For instance, you can drive to the filling station past road signs showing miles and yards, but when you get to the petrol pump, you’ll fill up in litres, not gallons.

So clarifying the social distancing measurement may be something that needs looking at.

But things could get more complicated, with a recent US study suggesting the social distance should be four times greater than the recommended two metres. 

It says the virus can be projected up to 27ft by a sneeze. For those who think only in metric, that’s 8.2 metres.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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