International comparisons of social distancing measures

Following on from his article about social distancing in the UK (Metric Views, 16 April), Ronnie Cohen now considers the contribution of the global measurement system to understanding the pandemic.

One thing that we take for granted when discussing social distancing in the UK and around the world is that the metre is a world standard with exactly the same definition across the globe. This is something we did not have until the metric system began to be widely adopted. This global standard enables an international organisation to make measurement-based recommendations that we can all understand in familiar units without any awkward conversions. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended a minimum of one metre for social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Recently, the Government has been considering a reduction in social distancing rules to 1.5 metres or 1 metre to bring the hospitality sector back to life. There has been pressure  from MPs and from hospitality businesses to reduce or abolish the 2-metre rule for social distancing, and it has been said that most of these businesses would not be viable with this current restriction. This could lead to a large number of closures and job losses. It appears unlikely that there will be a reduction in the two-metre rule until July 2020.

For consideration of different social distancing options, it helps us to be able to compare social distancing rules with other countries in a common measurement system to learn lessons from them.

Reports from the BBC, and the The Independent newspaper reveal the distancing rules in other countries:

  • 1 metre: China, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Singapore
  • 1.4 metres: South Korea
  • 1.5 metres: Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal
  • 1.8 metres: US
  • 2 metres: Canada, Spain, UK, New Zealand

The use of common and familiar units across the world helps international travellers to understand metre-based social distance signs in foreign countries. Imagine the situation we would have faced 200 years ago when countries (and even some cities) used local foot-based measurement systems. What issues would we face if other countries insisted on using their own national measurement systems?

There were many historical feet, now obsolete, that were once used in different cities and countries. The Wikipedia page on the unit of length called the foot (or local language equivalent) shows that the length of the foot varied from 272.8 millimetres in Zurich to 357.214 millimetres in Bordeaux. Compare these sizes to the 304.8 millimetres for the imperial (UK) foot. The table on that page lists 73 different feet and almost all of them varied in size from every other foot in the table. Some countries had different feet in different cities (e.g. 11 in Belgium, 21 in Germany, 9 in the Netherlands).

The use of different foot units in different countries would make international comparisons almost incomprehensible. The fact that we can debate social distance rules and make like-for-like comparisons with other countries is now taken for granted. It helps that we can learn from other countries’ experience of different social distancing rules (with other coronavirus rules), using common familiar units, to see how social distancing can be reduced from 2 metres.


30 thoughts on “International comparisons of social distancing measures”

  1. Given the Government’s solely of metric units in the news conferences, briefing papers etc on sars-cov-2 can we expect it to change policy on road signs and other remaining Imperial measurements hold outs and finish the job that was meant to have finished 40 years ago?


  2. @ John Smith, 2020-06-20 at 20:54

    We can but hope, but don’t hold your breath.
    At best we can hope for some of the damage to progress in the last four years or more being stopped or repaired.
    Everyone outside of USA have come together on this one. Even the USA “6 foot” has been translated to 1.8 m by all media I have seen, not sure about the Mail though!
    The media is key, this will for sure demonstrate to the metric inclined within, that metric is acceptable to the wider audience and pressure to use imperial greatly reduced.


  3. I have no idea as to why the Department for failure of Transport was petitioned, is Shapps a supporter? Looking at the BWMA website and the article it seems they are asserting that Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 (Schedule 18 Part 3) and TSRGD 2016, Schedule 12 have some applicability here.

    Does anyone know what response they got? As the article is paywalled.


  4. Was wondering how long it would take for the nutters to start moaning about the use of metres.

    The endemic use of the metre throughout public debate just shows how easily people adapt if no one bothers with conversions. There is the occasional mention of 6 ft but rarely heard or seen.

    BWMA must be fuming. Given the already heavy investment in signing and publishing in m it is hard to see how that lot will get their way. Can’t see traffic sign regs as being a good enough argument for what will undoubtedly damage government reputation even further if they tried to alter it.


  5. Stan,

    If you go to the articles on-line and go to the comment section, you will see a number of comments mocking the BWMA for making an issue of metric usage especially at times like this. Maybe in the past the media attention that they drew may have granted them support, but not anymore. Despite the media coverage they seem to garner from time to time and other media articles calling for a reversion nothing ever changes. The status quo remains. Grant it there is a full relaxation of advertising in kilograms and litres as the primary unit and in some shops pound pricing is all that exists, but the return to pound scales is not happening.

    I believe other than the media, no one else is paying attention to BWMA whining and those in the businesses and industries are just waiting for them to die out and the whining to cease.

    As for traffic sign regulations, this is a point I have been harping on for some time to the UKMA, only to get ignored. If the regulations make metric signage illegal, the UKMA must campaign to have the regulations changed to allow metric signage 100 %. Just simply changing the law costs no money, no sign need be changed, but changing the law not only ends the argument as you mention, but also would make it illegal to deface metric signage installed freely by communities that wish to.


  6. Daniel
    We have the wrong and too powerful government to even consider trying to change the law on this, it is likely to go the wrong way setting us (or those that survive) back by another 100 years.
    If I have the following wrong someone can correct me.
    As I understand this situation no law changing is required, the D(a)fT have the power to place a statutory instrument (I have no idea what that is, I asked and given that somewhere) before parliament to use metric distances, which could easily pass. From that the issue would be pretty much over.
    The question of changing the speed limits is a different thing altogether.
    Maybe UKMA could explain how this works and why it does not, or re-vitalise past postings.
    There is so much drivel around these days it is impossible to keep up.


  7. Yes a statutory instrument would likely be all that would be needed to make the change. The big obstacle is simply the will to do it. Governments vastly over estimate the difficulty. Sure there would be some complaints but most of the public would just get on with it, and that’s not a theory, its been proven in many peer countries including next door in Ireland, and in countries such as Australia and NZ, where (at the time) public familiarity with metric units was much lower than it is here today. We need politicians who will look at reason instead of exceptionalism


  8. Brian & Tony,

    The primary goal would be to change the signs to metric, but first metric signs have to be made legal. Accordingly, they are not. Thus the need to amend whatever law is preventing their legality. From what you have stated, a statutory instrument seems like a very simple step. It would make sense if the UKMA were to request that a statutory instrument be implemented at once.

    Over the years, a number of communities have implemented metric signage only to have them destroyed or removed by bandits. If metric signage was fully legal, then the signs already erected would still be there and if such signage would increase in appearance and become the majority signage then the government might see fit to bring about full signage metrication. This is exactly how it preceded in Ireland.

    Also, such a statutory instrument would make it illegal to damage, remove or alter metric signage. This would put an end to BWMA/ARM activities. There maybe some complaints but very short lived complaints and all coming from the BWMA and ARM.

    Now, what does the UKMA have to do to put forth a motion to implement a statutory instrument to have metric road signs made legal? It would be foolish for them not to try.


  9. We have been campaigning for metric signs for many years, there is lots of material about the case for change on our website; but only the government can make the change, and governments of all persuasions have so far been deaf to the evidence and unwilling to consider fairly the case for change. We will continue to make the case but only the government can actually change it. We have had some minor successes but are impatient for more progress


  10. Tony,

    As I said, no change can take place unless the issue of legality is settled and as you and Brian have already noted, all that need be done is to get a statutory instrument put in place. As was also mentioned by myself was that a number of communities had already erected metric signage only to have it defaced by outlaws. If the statutory instrument had been in place a long time ago, those signs would still be in metric and other communities would have followed suit. By now there would have been more metric signs than imperial and the government may have seen it would have been in its best interest to complete the sign metrication as Ireland did in 2005.

    You wasting your breath and time hoping for a massive change overnight. Push for the statutory instrument, then campaign with the towns that already had metric signs to get them changed back and push other communities to follow their example. Move from the bottom up, not the top down.


  11. Tonyw
    As seen on the BBC news, Rachel Reeves MP had her concerns about a 27 hectare lorry park 20 miles from Dover on the M20 motorway.
    I have asked the UK Labour Party (southeast) what their policy is regarding road sign metrication, surprise, surprise no reply!


  12. A quick explanation of what a statutory instrument is.

    Parliament has the authority to make laws which it does by means of Acts of Parliament.. Parliament often sees fit to delegate details of certain laws to specific ministers. In such cases, the Minister publishes the proposed change to the law in the form of a statutory instrument and lets it “lie before Parliament” – in other words he lets the MPs know that he wishes to enact a particular statutory instrument and if nobody objects, then it will be enacted. This saves Parliament the work of having to debate what they consider details while at the same time giving Parliament the ability to debate contraversial measures. Under current UK legislation, the minister has the authority to change the law regarding road signs (apart from speed limits) by means of a statutory instrument – road sign legislation had a major overhaul in 2016 – the document can be seen at Parliament has not however given ministers the authority to change the default speed limits which is why an Act of Parliament is needed to do that.


  13. I have to agree with Daniel.

    We are in the absurd position where there are actual laws banning the use of metric units; this isn’t even the case in the USA (as far as I’m aware) where I have actually seen metric road signs in use alongside ‘customary’ which would actually be illegal here.

    Some have argued that the prohibitions are in place for things like safety but, as has been said in the past elsewhere, that is an insult to Brits as it is saying we can’t deal with things that other nationalities can. The use of metric should not be illegal in this country and changing that would be a major ‘milestone’ in our campaign.


  14. There is a difference between providing for the use of imperial in the road sign regulations, which also provide for metric units on bridge height signs, and actually prohibiting the use of metric. Is there really a law that says that metric units may not be used?


  15. @Daniel, another country mile gone wrong.
    Interesting for sure, but why is it that journalists (columnist) seem so ignorant of the rest of the world? I would have thought the world was part of their job, local reporter or international they need a wider horizon.
    I refer of course to her blind reference to metric adopted by our European neighbours, what about the other 100 or so countries of the world? This once again links metric with some kind of European integration project rather that the world standard SI.


  16. @Jake If I remember correctly TSRGD (Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions) actually states in several places (specifically signs showing distances in yards and miles) that metric variations MUST NOT be used, even alongside the imperal measurement. The various volumes of the Road Signs Handbook which specifies the designs and layouts for various agencies repeats that command.

    This is pretty much what groups such as ARM have relied on for many, many years. Frankly it’s absurd that this particular rule still exists, especially since the Road Signs Handbook in several places actually states that when placing distance signs that metres and yards are interchangable (i.e. a sign that is 100 m from a junction may read ‘100 yards’. You can see this on motorways where the 1 mile, 800 yards and 400 yards countdowns to roadworks are ALWAYS placed alongside the distance markers at 1600, 800 and 400 m from where the cones start!


  17. Brian,

    Journalists today are not of the same calibre as journalists in the past. There was at one time a drive for the truth, but today there is a drive for sensationalism. I’m going to guess that the change in journalistic integrity and intelligence changed for the worse in the 1970s with the advent of “news” papers that began as reporting the lives of famous people and the rise of the paparazzi.

    Sensational articles devoid of facts and truth sell. just a few years ago, the EU was going to implement a law that made it a criminal act for journalists to publish things that could not be verified as fact. I have no idea whatever happened to this idea. Possibly it was shelved. I’m sure if it ever became law, the jails would be full of journalists.

    It is however sad that the journalists have taken the side of the metric opposition and see metric as something diabolical instead of the road to an increase in knowledge and science know-how.


  18. Alex:

    I consulted the TSRGD 2016 online and would paste Table 3.1 (Permitted use of distances) here if it displayed properly, but it doesn’t. Unless I’m looking in the wrong place, I see nothing that says that metric variations ‘must not’ be used. If you can quote chapter and verse, I would be pleased to know where to consult the relevant provisions that say that. The TSRGD does of course lay down imperial units and, unless metric units are specifically provided for as well, they are not allowed simply on the basis of not being laid down in the rules. They are provided for/allowed today however for indication of road widths approaching bridges and bridge height restrictions. I am aware that distance markers are placed at the metric distances you refer to. I assume the highways people would have no way of measuring them other than in metric. I’m sure all their tapes and measuring equipment are metric-only. The whole situation is totally absurd whichever way you look at it. Government officials have spent decades tying us all up in these knots.


  19. @Jake I have to confess it’s been some time since I’ve read any of TSRGD in detail (and quite probably before 2016) and indeed am unable to find the phrase in the main text however I’m sure you’ll concur that in almost all cases it is stated that distances are shown in ‘yards’ or ‘yds’ with no variance shown in any of the diagrams to include metric equivalence.

    I can however find one example of it in the Road Signs manual Chapter 4 which describes distance plates on signs for junctions. The text near the top of Page 16 reads:

    3. The distance shown on the supplementary plate must always be in yards, to the nearest 10 yards.
    Metres must not be used.


  20. Isn’t it odd that it states that the distance must be shown in yards to the nearest 10 yards and that metres cannot be used, yet the actual distances are measured in metres and the signs are placed to the nearest 10 m?


  21. Alex & Jake,

    So, what needs to be done to get that wording changed to at least include metres? Just changing it to read:

    3. The distance shown on the supplementary plate must always be in metres, to the nearest 10 metres. Yards must not be used.

    would be rejected. It must somehow read:

    3. The distance shown on the supplementary plate must always be in metres and/or yards, to the nearest 10 metres.

    Metres must be fully acceptable.

    Also, how exactly is the prohibition of metres legal? Doesn’t forbidding metres go against the weights and measures act which makes SI the predominate legal system for all instances and imperial acceptable only as a supplement?


  22. @Daniel it’s the same as the fact that we have laws that prohibit the sale of draught beer in units anything other than pints and halves. I couldn’t quote the actual law but it has been sucessfully used in recent years to ban theme pubs from serving continental beers in their native quantities.

    Some like to say it’s because it would mean that pubs would all have to buy new glasses… but then you start to get into arguments about filling to a line, to the brim, spillage, natural breakages, and the fact that pubs then go on to sell other drinks, Coke and the like, in pint glasses despite the fact that they’re supposed to be priced up in metric.

    Which is why just making metric legal for those who want to use it would go a long long way!


  23. Alex and Daniel, this is on the Gov.UK website:

    “Units of measurement
    You must use metric measurements (grams, kilograms, millilitres or litres) when selling packaged or loose goods in England, Scotland or Wales.

    There are different rules in Northern Ireland.

    The only products you can sell in imperial measures are:

    draught beer or cider by pint
    milk in returnable containers by pint
    precious metals by troy ounce

    You can display an imperial measurement alongside the metric measurement but it can’t stand out more than the metric measurement.”

    Interestingly, it says ‘the only products you CAN sell in imperial measures (my emphasis) are:’ .. and then goes on to list drink beer or cider by pint, milk in returnable containers by pint, precious metals by troy ounce.

    You CAN sell. Not you MUST sell! So can you not sell beer and cider in metric units as well? I don’t actually think you are allowed to, hence the problems with theme pubs. But the above, to me at least, and it should be intelligible to the non-legal expert, does not appear to rule out the use of metric. Perhaps the answer is that this is an explanation of the law rather than the law itself. I would need to do more research.


  24. Alex and Jake,

    I believe that the UK is the only country in the entire Commonwealth that defines a pint as 568 mL, everywhere else it is 570 mL. The use of the 570 mL pint is restricted to pubs and similar establishments. Thus all of the “pint” glassware that is made to hold 570 mL and not 568 mL, technically as far as UK law is concerned, is non-compliant with the law.

    Interesting about the use of the word can instead of must. This seriously needs to be looked into. Martin, posted something recently that the reason the media always seems to publish stories concerning them is that they come up with the news releases.

    Well, here is a news release that the UKMA can come up with. Report that the law does not require the use of pints, it just allows for it. Beer and Milk can be considered loose goods that must be sold using metric units and selling them in increments of 570 mL would comply with the law. In the US, jewelers measure out gold in grams and even have a price display of the daily gold price in grams. Ounces are only used by the media.


  25. SIGNAGE and ‘The space’.
    Signage in our UK supermarkets, shops, shopping centres etc. all tend to show ‘2m’ and not the more approved ‘2 m’ with a space between the number and the symbol.

    It’s my opinion sign writers and companies producing signage and also government officials producing adverts etc. are not aware that there should be a space between the number and the symbol.
    What about in other areas in the world?

    Of course I realise this space is only a small point and don’t want to be pedantic about it. Newspapers and other publications omit the space because of their style guides – and to save space.

    If a survey was done, asking which is correct ‘2m’ or ‘2 m’? I’ll be interested in seeing the result.
    On a related matter – use of the inkorrect symbol ‘Kg’ .
    When I’ve occasionally asked managers in my local Tesco supermarket which is correct ‘Kg’ or ‘kg’ ? Most, including those who look under 40, opt for the inkorrect ‘Kg’ rather than the correct symbol ‘kg’. Quite remarkable – because most, but not all, of their products and shelf labels do now do show ‘kg’.


  26. Widening this topic a little, I have sort of expected the state national health to come to a head at some point.
    Now that weight (excessive) has entered the mainstream media the idiocy of dual measures is coming to the fore. Social distancing (the realm of health and safety I guess) for the all but the occasional transgression being metric only, now we have obesity (the realm of the National Health Service and National Health England) almost all of it in some stone age units that I for my part have never used (even as then an anti American I preferred the lbs only, as far back as the late 1950’s).
    My mind still boggles at the intransigence of the human race given the full knowledge that any species needs to adapt or die, which is it to be?


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