Washing hands tops list of Brits’ anti-COVID measures, despite masks being more effective

Eir NolsoeData Journalist
August 13, 2021, 10:29 AM UTC

Coronavirus is airborne, yet Britons are more likely to believe hand washing and surface sanitising are ‘very’ effective ways of preventing transmission than masks and ventilation

When Boris Johnson announced that nearly all lockdown restrictions would end on 19 July, he said the aim was to rely on people’s “personal responsibility” going forward. But are Britons informed enough to act responsibly?  

Among ten measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus that we asked about, the highest share of Britons deem hand washing or using hand sanitiser as “very” (45%) or “fairly” (42%) effective. Sanitising surfaces that many people touch has the second-highest score, with four in five people saying it was very (40%) or fairly (43%) effective in preventing transmission.

But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have updated their guidance to say transmission through surfaces is “not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads”. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) similarly says transmission after touching surfaces is “relatively minimal”. It’s now clear coronavirus mostly spreads between two people at close range through inhalation, according to the BMJ.

This means that ventilation and wearing masks are crucial in preventing coronavirus. But the equal billing of sanitisation and mask wearing in the government’s “hands, face, space” slogan and previous advice could be confusing Britons as to the relative effectiveness of each action.

While most people believe masks make a difference in curbing the spread, the figure is lower than for hand washing and sanitising surfaces. Four in five people (81%) regard masks as effective, although only 37% believe masks are “very” beneficial in preventing COVID. Meanwhile, only a third of Britons (34%) see opening windows and doors in an enclosed space as “very” effectual, while a further 48% believe it has some merit.

Social distancing and plastic shields

Three quarters of Britons (74%) believe staying two metres apart when indoors helps prevent the spread of coronavirus, including three in ten (28%) who say it’s very effective. While it’s true that the virus tends to spread between “two people at close range”, a study by the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London has found that coronavirus can spread further than two metres in seconds. They say this emphasises the need for face masks and proper ventilation.

The survey also found that seven in ten people (71%) believe plastic shields, for example to separate tables in restaurants, to be effective. Around half of Britons (47%) also say face visors help to stop the spread of coronavirus.

But not a single study has shown that plastic barriers prevent coronavirus from spreading according to Harvard professor, Joseph Allen. In fact, some studies suggest that plastic screens can reduce ventilation and increase the risk of transmission.

See the full results here