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25 Apr, 2020 12:54

‘It’s kind of a rule of thumb’: Adviser reveals UK govt’s 2-meter coronavirus distance instruction based on ‘muddy science’

‘It’s kind of a rule of thumb’: Adviser reveals UK govt’s 2-meter coronavirus distance instruction based on ‘muddy science’

The British public cannot be expected to just do as they're told by the government for long, since the guidelines are very disruptive and not as scientifically sound as officials make them seem to be, a government adviser said.

One example would be the instruction for people to keep two meters apart from other people to reduce the risk of infection, advice which was “conjured out of nowhere,” according to professor Robert Dingwall.

“There's never been a scientific basis for two meters, it’s kind of a rule of thumb. But it's not like there is a whole kind of rigorous scientific literature that it is founded upon,” he told BBC’s Radio 4. Evidence exists that observing a one meter distance would be beneficial during an epidemic, but even that “comes out of indoor studies in clinical and experimental settings.”

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Dingwall acknowledged that in this case as in many others “the science is muddy” and doesn't point “in a single direction in quite the way that it’s represented as doing.” But his concern is that it would be harder to convince the public to comply with government advice, if the scientific basis for it is questionable.

“We cannot sustain [social distancing measures] without causing serious damage to society, to the economy and to the physical and mental health of the population,” he said.

I think it will be much harder to get compliance with some of the measures that really do not have an evidence base.

The interview, aired on Saturday morning, comes as No. 10 is grappling with a scandal involving Dominic Cummings, the chief political adviser for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Cummings and a data scientist, who worked for him on the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, attended a number of SAGE meetings as early as in January, a Guardian expose has revealed.

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The presence of politically-affiliated figures at gatherings of a body that keeps the list of its members secret, and is supposed to provide purely scientific recommendations, raised awkward questions about how it had helped shape the nation’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic. Downing Street said Cummings and his associate, Ben Warner, did go to SAGE meetings, but were not part of it, contrary to what the newspaper implied.

Dingwall, who belongs to the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), a body that feeds into SAGE, spoke to Radio 4 before the scandal broke. But he expressed skepticism about the anonymity of SAGE members, saying it makes it hard to judge their scientific expertise.

“There may be an issue with SAGE about the range of voices that are heard there. There is a slight tendency among eminent scientists to think that they can be experts on everything,” he explained.

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