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How much do you know about how Covid spreads?

Government messaging blamed for public confusion over transmission

More than a year has passed since the first case was reported in the UK yet a recent poll found that 16% of people believe - erroneously - that Covid is mainly spread by “touching objects that have the virus on them”.

In fact, experts say, very few coronavirus infections can be traced to a contaminated surface. The US Centres for Disease Control and Protection now lists surface transmission near the bottom of its “how Covid spreads” list – just above “catching it from your pet”.

So why the confusion? 

Stuart Ritchie, a psychiatry lecturer at King’s College London, notes that the UK government “took up handwashing in a big way” at the beginning of the pandemic, with “exhortations to sing Happy Birthday twice while scrubbing away”.

That message appears to have struck home. The recent poll by Savanta ComRes, who quizzed more than 2,300 adults in England last month, also found that when asked what Covid advice they recalled hearing most in recent months, 25% pointed to the importance of handwashing.

In an article on UnHerd, Ritchie writes that the focus on hand hygiene was “understandable” back at the start of the pandemic, “when we were completely in the dark on how the virus spreads, and were modelling our response on diseases we knew better, like the flu”.

But the “scientific consensus” now is that “the majority of Covid cases are spread” via floating airborne particles, also known as aerosols, he continues.

So a “renewed advertising focus on droplets and aerosols could help people truly understand - and more effectively avoid - the virus”.

On a more encouraging note, the Savanta poll found that 28% of respondents believed that the main cause of the spread was “breathing in the virus that is floating in the air around you”, while 46% said the biggest threat was “being breathed or coughed on by someone who has the virus”.

As far back as last July, scientific journal Nature was reporting that Covid-19 was “airborne” and passed “from person to person in tiny droplets called aerosols that waft through the air and accumulate over time”. 

And guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) states that “current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets among people who are in close contact with each other”.

However, the UK government waited until late July to make the wearing of face masks in shops in England mandatory.

Jenni Russell argued in The Times last month that Downing Street’s advice around face masks and aerosol transmission has “always been vague, late, outdated and contradictory”.

“It took until early January 2021 until the NHS updated its advice website to mention fresh air”, with the advice “still at the bottom of the list of eight bullets, six of which are related to handwashing”, she points out. 

Yet despite growing evidence that “the risk of infection from surfaces is low and the risk from breathing contaminated air is high”, the government slogan of “hands, face, space” continues to be the “mantra”.

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