The two-metre rule is based on “outdated” science because there is evidence that coronavirus droplets can travel up to 8m (26ft) when someone sneezes or shouts, researchers have claimed.
Social distancing guidelines are “over-simplistic”, as small droplets containing COVID-19 can go much further than the government claims, according to the study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
It says that high-risk environments – such as nightclubs or bars – should be subject to social distancing rules of up to 8m, while lower-risk settings could have their rules significantly relaxed.
The report claims: “This would provide greater protection in the highest risk settings but also greater freedom in lower risk settings, potentially enabling a return towards normality in some aspects of social and economic life.”
Breathing out, singing, coughing, and sneezing generate gas clouds of exhaled air containing respiratory droplets, they added.
These clouds move the droplets faster and can extend their range up to 7 or 8m within a few seconds.
The research says how far coronavirus droplets can travel depends on a number of different factors, including whether the infected person is outdoors or indoors, the level of ventilation and if they have a face mask on.
The COVID-19 patient’s viral load, how long the other person is exposed and how vulnerable they are to infection also come into play, they said.
This means social distancing should “be seen only as one part of a wider public health approach to containing the pandemic”, says the study, by the University of Oxford’s Nicholas Jones and colleagues.
They add: “It should be used in combination with other strategies to reduce transmission risk, including hand washing, regular surface cleaning, protective equipment and face coverings.”