If you’re visiting a bar or restaurant this week, expect to feel somewhat baffled by so-called ‘Covid-secure’ policies. You must don your mask for the short walk from door to table – but can remove it as soon as you’re sitting.
Waiters can’t hand you a drink – but they can place it on a tray for you to remove yourself. And you must leave by 10pm, along with every other customer who’ll squeeze out on to the same street corner or troop into the same packed train carriage.
Many of these new rules, employed by businesses in a bid to keep us safe, have been deemed ridiculous, nonsensical and plain stupid.
Some, including the Government’s top scientific advisers, have also voiced serious caution, warning they do more harm than good. And last week, Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson deemed the new 10pm closing time ‘dangerous’, following photographs of large crowds congregating in shops and off-licences to buy alcohol to continue their post-curfew parties.
Top scientists have questioned the logic, too, claiming the policy was ‘never discussed’ with them.
Social distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing in confined areas are cornerstones of risk reduction, experts agree. But what is the truth about all the other maddening rules complicating our everyday lives?
Here, experts reveal the measures that are more hassle than they’re worth.
Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, says masks don’t offer much protection during a 10-second walk to a dinner table (stock)
Why a mask in a restaurant or pub won’t protect you
Government restrictions make it compulsory to wear a mask or face covering in bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes in England – except when sitting down to eat or drink. So you have to wear one while being shown to your table, even if it is for just a few steps.
Studies suggest a mask can help prevent someone with Covid-19 who has no symptoms, or is yet to develop them, from passing on the virus to those around them, especially indoors.
And recent reports suggest that pubs, restaurants and hospitality venues account for a fifth of all Covid-19 transmissions, with the virus spread via tiny droplets, expelled into the air when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes. These can land directly on people nearby and infect them, or end up on surfaces, which someone might touch later.
According to the World Health Organisation, there is also evidence that tiny particles of the virus can stay suspended in the air, allowing it to spread from person to person in enclosed, poorly ventilated indoor spaces. So being in a restaurant will potentially increase risk of transmission.
But how much protection do masks offer during a ten-second walk to a dinner table?
Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, says not much.
‘The likelihood of the infection being transmitted walking from the door of the restaurant to your table, or walking from your table to the toilet, is close to zero.’
But other experts say that while the risk might be low, it’s still not one worth taking. ‘It makes sense to wear a mask for as long as you possibly can when we are indoors,’ says Dr David Strain, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School.
Temperature checks that tell us nothing
If you’ve been to the gym, or back to the office, the chances are you’ll have had your temperature taken. Businesses are screening employees using infrared guns pointed at the forehead, or high-tech screens, to check they don’t have a fever – one of the main signs of Covid-19 – before they are allowed to go inside.
But these checks serve little purpose. While they have become commonplace, they are not a legal requirement.
In July, health regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency told pubs and restaurants they should not rely on temperature-screening tools.
The first problem is the doubt about their accuracy. Most cameras and guns measure skin temperature, which can be heavily influenced by the outside environment, as opposed to core body temperature. Dr Strain says they are ‘nowhere near’ as reliable as the medical thermometers used by the NHS, which are placed under a patient’s tongue.
He adds: ‘In profoundly unwell patients, skin temperature is reduced, because the blood vessels to the skin shut down.’
Secondly, just because someone does not have a temperature, that does not mean they are free of Covid-19. In one large study, more than half of patients with Covid had a normal temperature on admission to hospital (although many later developed one).
‘I ran one of our Covid wards and even when we had 30-odd patients with active Covid, who were spreading it and dying from it, they wouldn’t all have a temperature,’ says Dr Strain.
‘Patients would often get a fever in the morning, but as the day progressed it would settle.’
Prof Dingwall calls temperature checks at restaurants ‘theatrical’.
He says: ‘If we want to move on and reduce fear levels in the population, the more of this stuff we can get rid of, the better.’
In July, health regulator the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency told pubs and restaurants they should not rely on temperature-screening tools (stock)
The flawed ‘no touch’ drinks rule in bars
Customers are baffled by rules in some bars and restaurants which mean servers can no longer transfer drinks from a serving tray to the table.
Instead, customers are asked to take their own glass from the tray.
This measure is not mandated by Government but it could be that staff are trying to maintain social distance while serving. ‘It is possible, if the server was putting the glass on the table, they might have to bend over and get a few inches closer,’ Prof Dingwall says. But there’s a fundamental flaw in the logic. ‘Staff are required, by law, to wear a face covering, so it shouldn’t make a difference.’
Prof Dingwall, who has advised on health and safety at work, believes the risk of infection in this scenario is low. ‘The glasses are being washed thoroughly and staff are told to wash their hands more regularly,’ he says. ‘So the risk of transmission is practically impossible.’
10pm curfews are doing more harm than good
Perhaps the most criticised Government Covid policy to date, deemed ‘counter-productive’ and ‘doing more harm than good’, by the country’s top scientists. But are they right to condemn the new 10pm curfew on pubs, bars and restaurants?
Firstly, despite Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s claims that the rule is working to reduce infections, it’s too early to tell if this is in fact true. Experts say if transmission is reducing, there are a number of reasons why this could be.
And worryingly, crowds are spilling on to the pavements at closing time, prompting impromptu street parties and raising concerns that it could help the virus spread.
The unfortunate result is, according to Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, ‘unsurprising’.
‘Forcing pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm pushes people out on to the street and public transport, potentially condensing crowds together,’ he says.
While some behavioural scientists have suggested that earlier closing times may keep people more sober, and therefore more likely to follow social-distancing guidelines, no concrete scientific evidence supports this. Such is the concern that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which scrutinises the Government, has called for the publication of the science which informed the decision.
There is little evidence coronavirus spreads through semen or vaginal fluids, but there is ample proof that it transmits through saliva, mucus or on the breath of infected people (stock)
Masks may leak virus if worn during sex
Even sex isn’t straightforward during a pandemic. Couples in an ‘established relationship’ in England can now meet up and have sex – as long as they are not contravening local lockdown rules – reversing the earlier ban.
But experts have urged people to take extra precautions, especially if they are having sex with someone for the first time.
Sexual health charity The Terrence Higgins Trust has advised that with new romantic interests, kissing should be avoided and face-to-face contact reduced – and to even wear masks during sex.
Canada’s lead medical doctor, Dr Theresa Tam, has suggested the same to its citizens.
It might sound ludicrous but some research suggests it may not be such a crazy idea.
There is little evidence coronavirus spreads through semen or vaginal fluids, but there is ample proof that it transmits through saliva, mucus or on the breath of infected people. It’s for these reasons that Harvard University experts wrote in the journal Annals Of Internal Medicine, that masks should be worn during close sexual contact, to reduce the risk of transmission.
But Prof Dingwall is sceptical. ‘The masks will get damp and work less effectively and they might leak around the edges,’ he says. ‘I don’t see why they’d be helpful, except perhaps when changing positions, to avoid exchanging air.’
Rule of Six could help infection to spread
The rule of six – introduced in England last month – has divided families, split up friends and derailed Christmas plans.
Only six people can meet at any one time, whether at someone’s home, in a pub, or outdoors – unless local lockdown rules prohibit it – in a bid to limit social contact and drive down the number of positive Covid-19 cases. But why is it six people – not five or seven – who can meet?
‘There is no science behind it and there is no logic as to why six would be useful,’ says Dr Strain.
He believes the rule may even aid the spread of the infection.
He says: ‘The problem is there is nothing to stop someone having lunch with one group of friends and then going to the pub or to have dinner with another group of five friends and then going out for drinks with another group.
‘And then – now the pubs shut at 10pm – going back to someone else’s house, with a different group of five people.’
He suggests a more effective alternative would be to ask people to form support bubbles of no more than ten people, from two or three households, who socialise exclusively with one another.
‘If anyone in the bubble got Covid, everyone in the bubble has to quarantine,’ he says.
Cabs with screens make masks pointless
Minicab drivers were hard hit in the first Covid-19 wave – with one of the highest rates of death among any profession in the UK.
It is now a legal requirement for cab passengers to wear a mask. Drivers are also encouraged to. But when a driver is behind a screen – as in London’s black taxis and in many minicabs – is a mask really necessary?
Prof Dingwall thinks there may not be much point.
‘There’s little interchange of air between drivers and passengers with a screen installed,’ he says. ‘So it’s difficult to see much justification for drivers wearing masks, too.’