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'It is not a rule, it is guidance': Tony Holohan says two-metre social distancing is not 'hard and fast law'

Concerns have been raised about the impact the measures will have on businesses as the country re-opens.

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Updated May 25th 2020, 7:19 PM

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Dr. Tony Holohan has said the 2m social distancing advice remains in place but will be reviewed along with all other public health guidelines. 

His comments come as the government continues to face calls to halve the social distancing policy to one metre, with TDs joining those who are asking for a review of the rules.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the government has urged members of the public to maintain a two-metre distance from others when outside their homes.

However, concerns have been raised about the impact the measures will have on businesses as the country re-opens, as well as people’s ability to use public transport.

Speaking at a Department of Health briefing this evening, Holohan said he understands the position of some businesses in relation to the advice. 

“We think, for the moment, two metres is a reasonable compromise given where we are,” he said. 

But that’s something we keep under constant review and I understand the position that businesses will have articulated in relation to some of those kinds of measures, but it is important that each of these is understood, not just on its own merits, but how all of these measures, the whole package of public health advice that we give interacts with each component. 

The chief medical officer went on the state that the 2m advice is “not a rule” but is “guidance along with all the other guidance”. 

It is not a rule, it is guidance. It has been described as if it is some hard and fast law that is there. So it is guidance and like any guidance it has to be interpreted by people at an individual level and then by organisations.

Holohan added that the National Public Health and Emergency Team (NPHET) would continue to engage with the Taoiseach’s office and other departments about the 2m guidance and other advice.  

Speaking earlier on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys played down suggestions that the distance would be shortened in the near-term.

“We’re only a week into the gradual easing of restrictions,” she said.

“It’ll be early next week before we start to see the data on whether the lifting of restrictions in phase one has had an impact on the number of new cases.

“Until we receive that data, it’s a little premature to start talking about moving away from two metres.”

Humphreys also explained that if developments during the first phase continued to be positive, the reduction could be considered at a later date.

“We need to see how things go after 5 June,” she said.

On the same programme, Fianna Fáil TD Barry Cowen said that a reduction of the distance to one metre would clearly make a return to business easier for many industries.

It followed a similar call by Alan Kelly yesterday, when the Labour leader urged Minister for Health Simon Harris to carry out an audit of the impact such a change would have on the capacity of the health service.

Also yesterday, the head of the Health Service Executive said that reducing the physical-distancing policy to one metre would give health officials “significant extra capacity” to manage ill patients and emergency departments.

Paul Reid told reporters that the current advice of keeping the public two metres apart has created “significant implications” for capacity across the State’s health facilities.

But he noted that the health service has to follow advice issued by NPHET.

“Obviously the NHPET guidance and government guidance is two metres and that’s what we are planning in terms of framework for new services to work through,” Reid said.

“That does have significant implications for us in terms of emergency departments, patients’ waiting rooms, so two metres will reduce the volume that we could have attending at a particular time.”

NPHET meeting note

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that there has been “no change” to advice on the two-metre rule.

However, minutes from a meeting of NPHET from 16 March noted a lack of evidence in distinguishing between one metre and two metres.

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In an update provided by the Chair of the Expert Advisory Group, Dr Cillian de Gascun, NPHET was told that the rule may not be practical in all cases.

“The EAG acknowledged the need for consistent messaging where possible but noted the lack of evidence in distinguishing between 1 and 2 metres,” the note reads.

“In addition, in some circumstances (including the healthcare, and domestic settings) it may not be possible or practical to maintain 2m distance. As such, the recommendation is that at least 1 metre, but ideally 2 metres is maintained between people, especially in the context of keeping distance from symptomatic individuals.”

In March, the World Health Organisation issued advice calling for people to obey a social distancing distance of one metre. 

In contrast, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the distance should be larger, defining social distancing as “maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 metres) from others when possible”.

The HSE agrees with the CDC on this two-metre distance, although countries around the world have implemented different distances to curbing Covid-19 transmission rates. 

Although advice in the UK is for people to keep two metres away from each other, guidance in Germany suggests keeping at a 1.5-metre distance from others.

Speaking this evening, Holohan said that he “wouldn’t say that we follow WHO advice rigidly”. 

It informs our advice, as does advice of the ECDC and on some things we’ve made our own judgments on things where hasn’t been specific advice provided for them. Like a number of countries we’ve identified two metres as our recommended distance.

“A measure of two metres does not mean that everything is safe outside of two metres and everything less than two metres is less safe. It’s a risk,” Holohan added. 

“If the average distance between people is one metres the risk of transmission of infection of this kind is greater than if it’s two metres and greater than if it’s four metres and so on.”

- With reporting from Rónán Duffy and Press Association

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