In Brief

Coronavirus: UK government ‘watered down’ advice on effective hand sanitisers

Investigation reveals how Downing Street ignored WHO’s pre-lockdown push for use of alcohol-based rubs

The UK government quietly dropped official advice from international health experts on effective hand sanitisers just ten days before the country entered lockdown, it has emerged.

An investigation by Sky News has found that “hundreds of thousands” of alcohol-free sanitisers that “take up to two minutes to kill coronavirus” are being used in schools, homes and businesses across Britain.

But the World Health Organization (WHO) says that hand wash should contain at least 60% alcohol in order to be effective against Covid-19, after two separate studies found that these sanitisers take just 20 to 30 seconds to kill the virus.

At the start of the pandemic, Downing Street also advised members of the public to “use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available”.

But this guidance was withdrawn without explanation on 13 March, days after Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the Department of Health was “making sure the public knows exactly what they should be doing to keep themselves and others safe”.

“Since then, advice from Mr Hancock's department and Public Health England has made no mention of what hand sanitiser should contain,” Sky News reports.

According to a 2014 review published in the Clinical Microbiology Reviews journal, alcohol in hand sanitiser kills viruses by “breaking apart proteins, splitting cells into pieces or messing with a cell’s metabolism”, says Live Science.

Although “solutions with as little as 30% alcohol have some pathogen-killing ability”, research has shown that “alcohol kills a more broad variety of bacteria and viruses when the concentration exceeds 60%, and it works faster as the concentration increases”, the site reports.

Dr Katie Maddock, head of Keele University’s School of Pharmacy and Bioengineering, has condemned the UK government’s decision to withdraw its intial advice on hand sanitisers.

“I think it is very confusing for people,” Maddock told Sky News. “I think if we just choose a track and stick to it, and the alcohol has got the evidence base, that’s where we should be.”

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