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23 March 2020

How motorway signs could help the government fight Covid-19

Better street furniture saves lives on the roads – now it could save them in cities and towns, too. 

By Stephen Bush

Why aren’t people socially distancing properly? They have been told to remain two metres apart from people outside their households at all times when out and about to reduce necessary social contact.

First of all, it’s not clear to what extent people aren’t social distancing: there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the “two metres apart” rule, with a number of people believing or fearing that it applies within households. It does not. If you live with three of your mates, you can sit close together in a park. From a health perspective, you will be asked to self-isolate if one of you falls sick because you live in the same house. You might want to spend time apart, but you don’t have to.

But the bigger problem is that we are asking people to do something which is actually fairly difficult: to guess just how far apart two metres is at all times while walking about.

We’re essentially asking people who shop and go out for fresh air to act like cars, which outside of traffic jams should maintain a safe distance in case one of them has a fault or has to stop suddenly for whatever reasons. We don’t, for the most part, let cars loose on long stretches of unmarked tarmac and go, “You guess where you need to be, good luck lads.” On the country roads where we do do this, accidents are higher both as proportion of total journeys, and in real terms – more people in the United Kingdom die on country roads that on motorways.

We don’t think this is because people who drive in the countryside are being stupid or selfish. We know it’s because of a lack of useful street furniture.

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One simple way to help people practice social distancing properly would be for national government to hand £500m to local government to increase painted two metre lines on public streets and paths in park, as well as using simple shorthands (if you are walking on a terraced street, stay three doors apart from strangers at all times, for instance) that easily translate to the real world in a way that two metres cannot. 

Merely increasing the level of enforcement won’t help without direction, because people don’t acquire a flawless ability to pick out distance when they become police officers. 

Handing the money to local government would help with speed, because one of the unavoidable problems of the present crisis is that the national government is working beyond capacity, but can borrow money freely to do so; while local governments have yet to see a massive increase in their workload as a result of Covid-19, but have little financial freedom or headroom to assist.