Two-metre social distancing is well understood

We are now several weeks into the lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus (also known as COVID-19). Ronnie Cohen, one of our frequent contributors, looks at a particular aspect of government advice – social distancing.

To minimise the spread of coronovirus, the government advises us to stay at home. It says we should only go out to shop for essentials, for health reasons, for daily exercise and to go to work only if the work cannot be done at home. When we go out, the government has told us to practice social distancing, maintaining a minimum distance between ourselves and others. This, of course, requires some expression of distance measurement, and we are told to remain 2 metres apart. It seems that the vast majority of the people have been observing social distancing and most seem to understand how far is meant by 2 metres.

The coronavirus section of the official NHS website contains a few references to social distancing. On the ‘Advice for Everyone’ page, it says “These reasons are exceptions – even when doing these activities, you should be minimising time spent outside of the home and ensuring you are 2 metres apart from anyone outside of your household.” 1 On the ‘Self Isolation Advice’ page, it says “If you have to stay at home together, try to keep 2 metres (3 steps) away from each other.”, converting to metres to typical human steps. 2

Contrast the exclusive use of metric units in official government advice about social distancing and on numerous private notices  with muddled thinking elsewhere about how distances should be expressed to members of the public:

  • On vehicle dimension signs, metres must be shown alongside feet and inches.
  • Official road distance signs must be expressed in yards and miles only.
  • Private and commercial property sizes and rooms are mostly expressed in square feet with only occasional conversions to square metres.
  • Shopping catalogues show most product dimensions in metres, centimetres and/or millimetres but follow imperial conventions for certain products (e.g. inches for screen and television sizes).
  • People’s height in police descriptions and in media articles are given only in feet and inches.
  • Marathon distances are expressed sometimes in kilometres and sometimes in miles.
  • Long distances are expressed by the general media almost exclusively in miles.
  • Wind speeds are expressed in miles per hour in weather reports.
  • Some sports (e.g. football) use yards while other sports (e.g. swimming, running) use metres.
  • Fuel economy measures for cars use both litres per 100 kilometres and miles per gallon.
  • Emission levels use grams per kilometre exclusively.
  • Footpath signs around the UK are sometimes in kilometres only, miles only or in both miles and kilometres.
  • Commercial road atlases use both miles and kilometres.
  • Most gym equipment uses metric units only; kilometres for distances and kilometres per hour for speeds.
  • Speedometers in cars sold in the UK show both miles and kilometres.
  • Visibility levels in weather reports are expressed in metres for short distances and kilometres for long distances.

These are some examples of the measurement muddle in the use of distances and areas alone and this is not an exhaustive list. This muddle extends to other types of units where we have continue to see two competing systems in use.

The government has surely noticed that its advice to keep 2 metres apart in its social distancing measures has been well understood. I have not heard anyone asking how long two metres is or for any imperial conversions. So why do we continue to see such a muddle of exclusive use of imperial units , exclusive use of metric units and a combination of both? This even extends to official use of measurements. Is it not time for the government to standardise on the use of metric units for all official, legal, administrative and trade purposes across the UK?



39 thoughts on “Two-metre social distancing is well understood”

  1. Wind speeds (or the speed of a cricket ball or tennis ball) in miles per hour (or even km/h) don’t really make sense. It would be far better ot use metres per second. What does a cricket ball travelling at 90 mph (or even 135 km/h) look like? How about a cricket ball travelling at 40 m/s. Well, a cricket pitch is 22 yards (about 20 metres), so that means a batsman has about 0.5 second to “read” the ball and play his stroke (a little less because is is a short distamce in front of his stumps). Similarly, quoting wind speeds in metres per second gives us an idea of how far it will blow leaves in one second (which is meaningful), but knowing how far those leaves would theoretically travel in an hour does not really mean much.


  2. Daniel,
    Thank you for these amusing links.
    I’m not on Twitter, but I’d like to point out to John Eoin Douglas (in the Oldham chronicle) if I could, that Australia and New Zealand have suffered far fewer deaths so far from Covid-19 than the UK despite the fact that they’re both totally metric countries. I haven’t once seen distances referred to in units other than metric by any antipodean government body or media but most people have no trouble with social distancing.
    Thirty years ago I didn’t know what an email was. In the ensuing years I have learnt what they are, how to send and receive them and now can’t imagine life without them. Education, even self-education, is a wonderful thing. Mr Douglas should try it.


  3. @Cliff
    Unfortunately John Eoin Douglas has also learnt to use email and twitter, and to very great effect. Thus it is inconceivable that he cannot grasp the very basics of the metric system at the 2 m level.
    It would seem to me that he probably mailed (by whatever means, and probably supported by we know who) every news media and probably every council and MP in the land knowing one or two would take the bait with a very public publication.
    We have yet to hear from the likes of Andrea Leadsom, Jacob Rees-Mogg and one or two other mp’s of that ilk.
    All that hype apart, it is still 2 m, it is not anything in footsies, nor broom handles, nor the height of a baseball player, the media is just not playing (foot) ball on that one, thankfully.


    Sunday, March 15, 2020
    15th of March 2020 – COVID-19 And The Metric Menace
    7 Spey Terrace
    EH7 4PX
    Telephone: 0131-546 4479
    Twitter: @johneoindouglas

    15th of March 2020

    Dear Sir/Madam,


    It is becoming increasingly obvious that the UK Government cares little for the health and welfare of its older citizens and visitors from the USA.

    Its advice on safe distances from others during the current COVID-19 epidemic is quoted only in metric units which do not sit naturally with many of us. At first reading, 2m to me is 2 miles which is impractical for all than the most rural dweller and, even when I get past that initial misunderstanding, I find it difficult to conceptualise what 2 metres actually means.

    This follows on from this winter’s irresponsible total abandonment of Imperial measures by BBC meteorologists even in forecasts of the most serious weather conditions!

    I wonder how many deaths could be avoided if both systems of measurement were shown due respect?

    John Eoin Douglas


  5. It’s been good to see metric being used so exclusively in most cases but following some news I was shocked to see a photo taken outside one Canadian business that showed ‘2 m’ in the French version and ‘6 feet’ in the English one.

    It just goes to show that even in countries that should know better there will always be one person who just doesn’t get it!


  6. Cliff:
    It would seem that the correspondent you refer to lives in Scotland and allegedly sends letters of complaint to newspaper publishers around the UK in the hope of getting one published. Oldham obliged.


  7. Remarkably there are some (private) imperial-only vehicle height signs even in Quebec, in French, almost 50 years after public highway signs converted. The mind boggles who thought that was a good idea!


  8. It shows a lot of desperation when the only reason you can give for using dead king units is the old people. Especially when you consider that metrication originated 60 years ago. Thus someone even 80 years old today would have been 20 when the program started. Even if most of the changes took place 10 to 20 years later, that is still 40 years in an almost fully metric environment. You work in a metric factory or office, you shop in a market with prepackaged products in metric, you listen to weather reports in metric units, etc. There might be some holdouts like road signs, but that only means that understanding kilometres is compromised. Though it is still possible to understand kilometres. But since the short distance signs show metres and not yards and one follows the signs, then one already knows metres.

    Metric is everywhere and if in 40 years someone still pretends not to know what that means, it only proves they are pretty dense.


  9. One theory being passed around the internet that I came across just last week was that Donald Trump wants to reopen the US for business right away based on the British Health Ministers advice. That advice being to let the virus blow through the population and wipe out the old people and those weakened by debilitating diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc and leave the surviving population with a young, healthy and vibrant work force. It is meant to save the medical industry from bankruptcy due to having to care for chronic patients.

    That would wipe out all of the older citizens that John Eoin Douglas is so concerned about. Britain has a proportionally high number of deaths per those infected compared to other countries and the numbers are increasing. John Douglas’ attention is misplaced.

    One thing is assured though. Because of the virus those hoping for a reversion to imperial will not see it even addressed. If the Heath Minister’s plan is true, then the younger vibrant work force that survives will realise that a recovery of the economy will be better served if wastage such as clinging to imperial is costly. Completing metrication completely will be the first step into the new world.


  10. Daniel:

    When Britain was preparing to introduce decimal currency, a much-beloved great aunt of mine asked ‘Why can’t they wait until all the old people have died off first?’ She gave a big smile and laughed as soon as she had said this, realising that it made no sense, that there were going to be old people in every generation. She lived for thirty-odd years after decimalisation and I never had the impression that she (or her husband, my great uncle) had any problem with 100 pence to the pound. If metrication had been carried out around the same time, imperial units would have been well and truly a thing of the past, like shillings and pence. No doubt my great uncle would have continued using inches to make his models in his workshop, but his generation, two before my own, would have been the last to have to use the antiquated imperial system in any public arena.


  11. @Daniel Jackson

    Bad news for the younger and middle aged folks. I saw on the BBC website a health expert who said that there are signs recovering from COVID-19 does not grant that much immunity and many can get reinfected.

    She said that only a vaccine can provide a strong enough boost to the immune system to give full immunity that lasts for maybe one or two years with some falloff over time after that requiring booster shots.

    So maybe the plan is to clear out the rubbish (old folks, those with co-morbidities, etc.) then distribute the vaccine to the rest and it’s all then done and dusted.

    Yikes! :-0


  12. Ezra,

    I’m well aware of becoming reinfected. Little is said in the media about the virus mutating, but the virus is mutating. The Covid-19 is like a cold on steroids with much more aggressive symptoms. Once infected the virus never leaves the body and can mutate and reinfect at a later time as well as being passed on.

    A vaccine for this virus will be ineffective. It takes 18 months to develop a vaccine and by that time the disease will have mutated a number times making any vaccine ineffective against the new strains. For the same reasons vaccines don’t work against colds and those vaccines created for flues only work against a specific strain.

    Those who propose these ideas of having it blow through the population with the intent of infecting all of the old people are themselves old, but for some reason have convinced themselves that due to their position and wealth status are somehow immune and will survive. Won’t they be in for a surprise?


  13. Jake,

    I have the funny feeling that even if England had metricated to the same vigor as Australia did, the amount of resistance would be the same and there would still be a lot of lingering.

    For one thing England has a past and a lot of English like to cling to that past. Australians don’t have a past and wanted to look to the future. They wanted their own identity and were eager to break free from England in any way they could. Full metrication was one way. In addition when they decimalised their currency they chose to go to a new name for the currency where as the English decided to keep the pound name. The Australian media was asked to not oppose metrication and didn’t, they embraced it whereas the English media chose to oppose metrication.

    Australia for a number of decades made it illegal to sell non-metric measuring tapes in Australia. They later rescinded the illegality but by then it was too late. England embraced dual measured tapes. So now the English ignore the metric side of the tape and Australians ignore the inch side.

    Even despite the resistance to metric among some people there is still a large group of people who have moved forward. I’ve seen enough media reports of people interviewed on the streets giving distances in metres and even the 2 m social distance for covid-19 has taken hold over imperial units.

    It’s not a lost cause for metric in England it’s just going to take a much longer time to accomplish.


  14. Nomenclature is important for understanding.

    A virus is not the same thing as the disease that it causes. It is therefore not correct to say that coronavirus is also known as COVID-19. Unfortunately much of the media, and even the NHS web site, often fails to make the distinction.

    “Coronavirus” is the common name for Coronaviridae – a family of viruses that causes disease in mammals and birds.

    “Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, or “SARS-CoV-2” for short, is the name of the species of coronavirus that causes the disease in humans known as “Coronavirus disease 2019”, or “COVID-19”.

    Other species of coronavirus that cause serious disease in humans include SARS-CoV which causes SARS, and MERS-CoV which causes MERS.


  15. The sars-cov-2 virus RNA polymerase has a proof checking mechanism in it, so the assertion above about the high rate of copy errors is demonstrably false.

    The virus in the vast majority of patients is cleared by the immune system – whether B or T cell mediated – in some individuals it is slow to clear, this may be more reflective of their HLA polmorphism or other allelic induced vulnerability (source: Cell Death Differ (2020). .

    A vaccine will be possible to make, though as is usual there will be variance in the efficacy of it, on an individual by individual basis. Please note that sars-cov-2 is a betacoronavirus, not a “cold” virus or indeed a flu virus, it is a separate clade. Due to the virus’s stability (bearing in mind the many millions of hosts it has now passed through, there have been relatively few copy errors) then a long lasting one will be possible.

    I urge people to actually read up on the rapidly evolving base of knowledge on this virus and not to spread half understood factoids, based on an area of science they are more than likely only casually acquainted with.


  16. With the required social distance being only 6ft in the USA, does this put their citizens at greater risk of catching the virus than countries who are following the WHO recommendation of 2m?


  17. Deaths per million population? Poor old San Marino and Belgium of course…


  18. John Smith,

    San Marino and Belgium don’t top the list of total infections and deaths. The US tops the list for both and England has far more deaths than recoveries. It appears these statistics are only the tip of the Iceberg with huge numbers being unreported.

    People around the world know what 2 m means, but the US and England are clueless as to what 6 feet means. Lines have to be placed on the floor (not always consistent) for those that don’t know how far to space themselves and distances have to be explained in a variety of descriptions like car lengths, elephant lengths, football fields, etc. Even with that the population is still clueless. In time measurement ignorance will wipe out huge segments of US and English populations.


  19. 1) deaths measured per million population – one way to account for differences in population size – show poor old San Marino and Belgium as the worst affected

    2) As this report in the Independent shows (, analogues for distance have been used elsewhere in the world – bears in Siberia or caribou in Canada – so your claim is fatuous at best.

    As for you other claims, they are truly risible.


  20. On looking into this a bit further, I am confused that the WHO, on their website state: “Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing”. I cannot understand why they suggest such a small distance that is half what we are being told by our government and why they even use imperial units that are not even converted accurately. All I can imagine is that the USA are exerting influence which is not particularly helpful to the rest of the world who do not use or understand imperial units.


  21. @Tim Bentley I guess it depends on who has provided the definitive advice. If it’s the WHO then there’s no reason why individual governments couldn’t increase this distance if they believe it might help.

    I have read that Australia (or at least some parts of it) were stating 1.5 m as being the recommended distance.

    You could say this is another example of where consistency of information is key. If most of the world is saying 2 m some might use the 1 m figure on the WHO website as a reason to ignore local advise which may cause risk to others. To be honest though we don’t all carry tape measures around with us and people are expected to make a sensible estimate of the distance. If we start getting picky about a few 10’s of mm here and there we start to look as silly as those who insist on converting 3 feet to 0.9144 m!


  22. @Tim Bentley the American guidance is 6′ apart, so it can’t be the US in this instance.

    A lot of countries have 1.5 m as the recommended distance though.


  23. John Smith

    Reality is catching up with the you. The UK has just passed Germany in the number of infections, soon will pass up France and are ahead of the Spain and France in deaths and just behind Italy. Soon they will be in 2-nd place behind the US. The two top opposers to metrication.

    Another Covid parody song to add to the list using 2 m. Why are a free people choosing to use metres and not feet?


  24. To be honest, watching the news with certain people, I would have a 2 kilometres distance.


  25. Two things gleaned from the news tonight, UK is no longer united but 4 separate states that (from Nicola Sturgeon) apparently communicates via the media. The second is that the NHS seems to be institutionally anti SI as a measuring system for all purposes (as UK government, Hansard, many years ago).
    Given that 2 m has been universally accepted seemingly by all but one person in the UK, it was disappointing that tonight on the local news report from Brighton and Hove a video clip was shown which included a banner flag and road markings (in Hove) carrying the NHS logo using the standard 2 m with arrows, followed underneath by 2 m (6 feet or 3 paces).
    So the NHS, with no support from any media nor institution or person (not even Leadsom, Rees-Mog, Bill Cash or Farage) take it upon themselves to re-educate us into 19th century measuring units with three steps backwards.
    More than very disappointing.


  26. Brian, No wonder the UK is third behind Spain and the US in total infections and second behind the US in deaths. It won’t be long before the UK passes up Spain in infections to be # 2 behind the US in both. The same attitude that resists metrication is the same attitude that resists safe medical practices.


  27. I am beginning to wonder even more now as to how much the UK education establishment really knows, understands or even cares about SI (along with NHS and D[a]fT).
    On the news last night there was an article about schools in Wales returning to classes. In the video clip showing the distancing measures, the cameraman zoomed in on one floor sign roundel displaying ‘2 Mts (with a pair of feet)’ and again on a floor tape showing ‘! PLEASE KEEP A DISTANCE OF 2 METERS / 6 FEET !’.
    That is the standard of our world beating education system to go with our world class NHS system and our world leading transport network.


  28. Brian AC:

    That is bad, especially if it was in a school. And metres spelt the American way. 😦


  29. Another indication that the UK metrication process is at best stalled, more likely terminally wrecked – with respect to the general public a any rate.

    How to re-invigorate it is the question, especially as the favourite of this site – switch over of road signs – is unlikely to be on the political agenda for another decade minimum.


  30. BrianAC & Jake:
    if specific details of the actual school in Wales is available, then a formal complaint could be made both about the spelling ‘meters’ and also about the use of that horrible abbreviation ‘Mts’. We all know students should be taught to use the correct symbols.


  31. @Philip
    The clip was on channel 4 and the first part (Mts) was also on BBC, both main national TV channels, so they, and whoever did the recording should be doing the complaining about the spelling used in a UK education establishment (a seemingly junior school at that) in which they are all complicit by association, and willing to pass it on to the entire nation. I got the impression that is why the camera operative zoomed in on those errors, they at least often pick out these things.
    The truth is this country is so far up that certain creek that no one cares any more.
    Pedantic this may seem, but if they start schooling learning things wrong then that will prevail for a good many years into the future. Does not say much for the school, teachers, nor the head, pathetic would be my opinion.
    Could do better is what used to be scrawled across my work, now I try to get my own back!


  32. Brian AC:

    It’s probably not the fault of the individual school. The roundels and tapes are probably provided by the local education authority. That doesn’t make it any less incorrect, of course. It might be worth investigating.


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