Maintaining physical distancing

Last updated: 13 Jan 2021

Physical distancing will need to be maintained as the lockdown is eased. It is important to ensure there is a gap of at least two metres between people, wherever possible. This is because coronavirus can be transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes small droplets with the virus into the air, and this is more likely in close contact.

Before people enter a workplace, employers will need to take stock of the physical organisation of their workplace and the tasks people carry out. They will need to make changes to enable staff to maintain physical distancing.

Physical distancing is just one part of the equation when controlling the risk of coronavirus transmission. Measures to control the risk of transmission via airborne aerosol droplets and contaminated surfaces are also necessary.

Government guidance states that physical distancing of 1.5m is acceptable as long as there are additional control measures in place. Prospect believes that employers and staff should look to maintain distancing of at least 2m combined with additional control measures. Where this is not possible, more stringent control measures will be necessary.

Workplace organisation

When considering the layout of the workplace, particular attention will need to be paid to thoroughfares and areas where people congregate, such as reception areas and canteens.

Employers will also need to consider how many people are in the building at any one time – if too many people are in the workplace, it will be more difficult to maintain distancing.

Examples of measures that will help people maintain physical distancing include:

  • providing floor markings to help people judge how far to stand from one another
  • segregating flows of foot traffic, either physically or with floor markings – for example, having one doorway to access the building, and another to exit; or a having separate staircases for going up and down the building
  • restricting movement through a building, so people can only access necessary areas
  • restricting the use of lifts
  • allowing fewer people in workplaces, perhaps by introducing staggered shifts
  • closing meeting rooms, with meetings conducted via video conference
  • workstations spaced sufficiently to maintain physical distancing, with restrictions on people sitting on the end of rows
  • returning to fixed workspaces where hot-desking is in operation
  • erecting screens or barriers between people

Work tasks and activities

Some work tasks, by their nature, require people to come with two metres of one another. Employers will need to consider how employees will carry out necessary tasks safely while maintaining two metres separation between one another. Tasks should be planned and sequenced so that physical distancing can be maintained.

An example of a task that might require two people is lifting a heavy object. The employer will need to work out how the object can be lifted without bringing people into close contact. This may involve the use of additional lifting equipment, or breaking the load down into smaller parts that are easier for one individual to carry.

Factors to consider when planning work involving more than one person:

  • Has the duration of the task been kept to an absolute minimum?
  • Has the physical contact between individuals been eliminated or, if this isn’t possible and the task is necessary, reduced as much as possible with additional controls implemented such as PPE?
  • Are as few people as safely possible present?
  • Can teams be kept together, or a buddy system introduced, so the risk of transmission to the wider workforce is decreased?
  • Can physical barriers, such as screens, be used to separate workers?
  • Can the task be completed outside, where the risk is likely to be lower?
  • Has unnecessary contact with surfaces been reduced as much as possible?
  • Has the hand to hand transfer of items such as tools been limited as much as possible?
  • Is sharing tools restricted, and are they are cleaned between use if they are shared?

If two-metre physical distancing cannot be maintained, employees will need to wear PPE.