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?