Many of us are re-engaging with the world, unsure of what risks await us day to day. With expert advice still fixed on caution, no one is suggesting that it will be business as before.
Nevertheless, there is a mood of change in the air.
James Milnes, an expert in biological threats and former chief of staff for the UK’s Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre, says that we cannot be complacent. “The nature of this virus is that it does stick around.” says Milnes. “Even if people showing symptoms stay at home as they should, asymptomatic carriers pose a risk. This is a challenging world.”
Milnes, who now runs Zoono, a hand and surface sanitiser company, points out that the chances of contracting Covid-19 simply by touching a shared surface are high.
“A study in Singapore reported on two Chinese tourists who didn’t show symptoms,” he says. “They visited a church and then fell ill. Contact tracing discovered that two others attending the church at the same time had then contracted the virus. A third picked up the disease, three to four hours later, from sitting on the same seats.”
No wonder then many of us feel in two minds about what happens now: do we go out and are we safe if we do? What should we be wary of and what practical measures will help us inch back to normality?
Wear a mask
Before any of us leave home, the first question to ask is surely whether to don masks and/or gloves if we’re not going on public transport, where they are now compulsory.
A comprehensive systematic review published in The Lancet on June 1 says that although direct evidence is limited, the use of 12- to 16-layer cotton or surgical masks in the community could be useful. Moreover, eye protection might provide additional benefits. Milnes agrees that masks are helpful to prevent inhalation of the virus.
However, he cautions that you could end up with a biohazard on the outside of the mask: “The virus could end up sticking to the front outside of the mask, so then it matters how you handle your mask afterwards,” he says. “The same would be true of gloves; you could end up bringing the virus into your home.” If you do feel more comfortable wearing a mask, he says, treat it as though there is a layer of Covid-19 on it and either wash or dispose of it safely.
Avoid rush hour
If the idea of getting the train or bus fills you with alarm, that’s not an unreasonable reaction, says Milnes. “There is an airborne element of risk – can you stay two metres away from other passengers?”
Tautvydas Karitonas, an expert in infection control from decontamination specialists Inivos, says “As the pathogen can survive on surfaces including plastic and steel for hours at a time, it will be essential for transport providers to step up their cleaning practices and look for clinical-standard decontamination services to ensure pathogens don’t remain on handrails, seating and door release buttons.”
Expect more attendants at work, spaces between urinals and extra sensor-operated taps and soap dispensers.
You may want to avoid hand driers, too, as a 2019 University of Leeds study found using paper towels is more effective than conventional jet air dryers for removing microbes when drying poorly washed hands. Moreover, the Leeds experts warn that high-powered driers could even spread virus microbes around a public loo.
Looking ahead, self-cleaning lavatory cubicles could become more popular, especially as flushing a loo without the lid being placed down can expel viral particles into the atmosphere.
Some councils are using social distancing measures such as closing one-in-two urinals but Karitonas thinks more steps will need to be taken. “This could be a variety of different measures, from the installation of taps and soap dispensers that are operated by sensors, limiting the risk of harmful bacteria, to refitting them to enable people to follow social distancing measures with ease.
“There will have to be an increase in manual cleaning, as well as the introduction of regular decontamination services.”
Any office buildings set up with air-conditioning and without windows that can open are potentially risky, warns Professor Prashant Kumar of the University of Surrey, as poor ventilation and recirculation of the same air means the atmosphere does not get refreshed.
Is it better to be in spaces where you can open the window and let fresh air circulate? “It’s a good strategy,” says Prof Kumar, who has just published a study into the role of preventing airborne transmission in the journal City and Environment Interactions.
Desks and common areas will need to be kept clean; and the virus may mean the end for hot-desking and communal ping-pong tables and bean bags, warn researchers from the University of California. In a review just published in the journal mSystems, they point out that modern buildings are generally designed to promote social mixing – yet are ideal for spreading viruses around.
Expect tables, inside and out, to be neatly spaced two metres apart. The WHO has recommended one-metre distancing is enough and many in hospitality are lobbying for this change.
But placing people around tables helps natural social distancing, although Italian restaurants, which are trialling Flexi-glass panels between sets of diners are not finding them popular. We still want to relax when we go out, not feel like we’re lab rats.
One LA restaurant is taking temperatures at the door and refusing entry if you are above normal. Others may start to draw your attention to their cleanliness. Cutlery and crockery may be offered individually bagged when you sit down.
At the airport
At the airport, you may be offered on-the-spot antibody or antigen virus testing to see if you are fit to fly. You may also have your temperature taken.
Masks or similar face coverings will be expected from check-in onwards, depending on your airline. British Airways says that one mask only lasts four hours, so you need to bring as many as needed depending on the length of time you travel – including baggage retrieval at the other end. Dubai Airport has vending machines dispensing PPE and other airports will follow.
On the plane
Studies are mixed on how safe plane travel is: a US study in 2018 stated that a droplet-mediated respiratory infectious disease “is unlikely to be directly transmitted beyond one metre from the infectious passenger”. So transmission is limited to one row in front of or behind an infectious passenger, they said.
However, previous studies by the same research team found that passengers with SARS or influenza appeared to have infected people well outside their immediate area.
This could be through contamination at other parts of the journey – passing luggage down from a rack, say, or via an infectious crew member.
The air itself in planes is very clean and filtered by HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters; it also travels high to low, from above your head to beneath your feet, which makes it unlikely a passenger could share infected air with someone a few rows behind them.
The Daily Telegraph