It is the moment many of us have been anticipating for months, with excitement or dread: so-called ‘freedom day’. The lifting of almost all remaining Covid restrictions in England from 19 July marks a turning point in our relationship with the virus, when “personal responsibility” becomes our primary means of avoiding infection. So, what should we prioritise to stay safe?
A study by Public Health England (PHE) scientists provides some clues. It identifies a 30-fold difference in the likelihood of catching the virus during different activities and events. Visits to other people’s houses and places that offer massages and haircuts are identified as the highest risk, while shops are the least risky.
The PHE researchers used contact tracing and genetic data from the UK’s second wave to determine whether the places infected people said they’d visited were where transmission actually occurred. The study has yet to be peer reviewed.
But there’s plenty we can do in all settings to boost our levels of protection. Here’s our guide to staying safe next week and beyond.
Getting a haircut
While “personal services” such as visiting a hair salon, beautician or massage parlour were among activities associated with the greatest risk of catching Covid, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be going out for a haircut.
“It’s really important to say that although the odds ratio here is [very] high, the total amount of transmission is quite low,” said Prof Ewan Birney of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, who was involved in the research. The biggest risk is likely to come from your hairdresser, masseuse or beautician being infectious rather than from other customers – particularly as these activities tend to involve being in close contact for prolonged periods in small spaces indoors and often face-to-face.
Although plastic visors, cleaning and taking customers’ temperatures at the door may feel reassuring, ensuring windows are open and that your hairdresser has been vaccinated are probably better ways of protecting ourselves. Another strategy could be to ask whether staff are taking regular rapid tests to pick up asymptomatic infections. Dr Nilufar Ahmed, a psychologist at the University of Bristol, said: “I think if people begin to ask these questions, then businesses will start to respond to that.”
Going to work
Advice to work from home is coming to an end, but how safe will returning to the office be? In part, this will depend on how well ventilated the workplace is, said Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist from the University of Leeds. Ideally, buildings should undergo ventilation assessments, but in the meantime “people should try and open windows and get a through-draft if they can”. Commuting also carries risks, and the planned removal of mandatory masks on public transport in England has worried many scientists. In a confined space with poor ventilation, collective mask-wearing means less virus floating around in the air, making it safer for everyone, Griffin said.
Childcare and schools
The PHE study identified nursery schools as one of the higher-risk venues for Covid transmission. “Younger children are less likely to be able to maintain [social distancing] boundaries, just because they forget,” said Ahmed. They are also more likely to be asymptomatic, meaning unless they’re tested infections can go unnoticed and rapidly spread. Nurseries tend to be relatively small spaces, and young children have a proclivity for touching objects and surfaces – with their mouths as well as their hands.
Primary and secondary schools are also sources of outbreaks, although the PHE study found these were less risky. “Essentially, schools are a good place to spread the virus between young people, even despite the best efforts of schools, just because you’ve got lots of different households mixing,” said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh.
But children don’t magically become infected out of thin air. Particularly for younger ones, the original source of any outbreak is often the adults in their lives. So, a key way to reduce school and nursery outbreaks is for parents to get double vaccinated.
A key reason why the risk associated with social visits to friends’ houses is so high is because we tend to spend long periods of time in relatively close proximity, such as facing one another across the dining table or sitting next to one another on the sofa watching the football.
Gathering in the “safety” of your own home with friends and loved ones is also risky precisely because we perceive it to be safe. “That, for me, is the key part of that [PHE finding],” said Ahmed. “We generally feel safer around people we know and like, and we tend to interpret that safeness in quite global terms – I feel safe therefore I must be less at risk.”
Asking friends and relatives if they’ve recently taken a Covid test, how many vaccine doses they’ve had, and how long ago they had them can help you to accurately assess the risks, and consider safer options if necessary – such as meeting in a park or garden instead.
Going to the pub or dining out
Here, the degree of risk varies, depending on who you’re with, how closely you sit and whether you’re indoors or outdoors. It’s most likely the virus would transmit between groups of friends rather than strangers in this setting, said Catherine Noakes, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Leeds, speaking in a personal capacity. “Even though there will no longer be a requirement on social distancing, it doesn’t mean we suddenly have to be 50cm apart from each other,” she said.
Being conscious of space, and eating outdoors if possible will both help to minimise risk. However, even a pub beer garden can harbour hidden dangers. Griffin said being crammed around a small bench could still be risky “if you’re sat across from one another, and talking, so the range of your droplets is such that you could still be exposing people”. Queueing for the toilet or for a drink could be another transmission hotspot, if people are standing close together, without wearing masks, for protracted amounts of time.
Despite concerns about picking up Covid from contaminated groceries during the early months of the pandemic, most shopping is now considered relatively low risk. In part, this is because physical distancing is quite easy in a supermarket aisle, and because shoppers don’t tend to loiter for long periods.
“Also, retail made an effort – though probably less in recent months – to limit the number of people going into those environments,” said Bauld. “I think a lot of the risks in supermarkets are going to be more for the staff and the break rooms rather than the public,” said Noakes.
Even though the risks are relatively low, significant numbers of retail-related infections have occurred because of the sheer number of people engaging in this activity. This risk may increase as people distance less, and fewer wear face coverings.
Nightclubs will open their doors for the first time in over a year. Typically crowded spaces, packed with people who’ve been consuming substances that may diminish their inhibitions or sense of space and social responsibility, nightclubs are undoubtedly a high risk setting. Infections increased eight-fold following relaxation of Covid restrictions in the Netherlands, which included the reopening of nightclubs, prompting the government to reimpose restrictions after two weeks. Spain, too, backtracked on plans to reopen nightclubs nationally.
However, the risks could be somewhat reduced if clubs take up the government’s recommendation of only admitting people who can show proof of double vaccination or a negative Covid test.
Outdoor festivals and sporting events
The risk of catching Covid is much lower outdoors than indoors due to wind and fresh air dispersing and diluting the virus. However, bigger danger zones include travelling to and from events – particularly as car sharing and public transport often involve contact with people from outside your household.
An event branded “outdoor” doesn’t necessarily mean all elements are outside either: indoor toilets, enclosed refreshment areas and music tents filled with people singing and dancing are all areas where the virus is more likely to spread. The same goes for shops, and food and drink venues at sporting stadiums.