Feature: Social Distance

“Walk this Way”, Camden Town, September 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

As we emerged out of lockdown, one of the striking changes for many was the profusion of signage and other reminders to change one of our most basic instincts – to be close. The change started in February, as we were advised to keep 1m apart (still the WHO standard). But shortly after, government advice changed to 2m, and then in May it changed again to 1m+ – if you have to be at closer proximity, ensure you take other measures to protect yourself and others from the virus.

So, what does the WHO say? According to its “Advice for the Public” page, we should:

“Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others. Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease.”

But of course this depends on people being able to estimate distance accurately. So 2m was an excellent choice for public consumption: even if people were at less than this distance they had some margin before they were at risk. As in the image below, the public quickly adapted to the concept, though estimations of the distance were erratic.

“Social Distance”, Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross, March 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The major obstacle in implementing this was described in detail by the _Streets research group at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture: only 36% of London streets had sufficiently wide pavements. In this context, necessary street furniture – bins, trees, lamp-posts, bus shelters, benches – become obstacles. And the option of stepping into the street is not one really open to many city-dwellers. So we are confronted with choke points: sometimes created by objects bearing the warnings themselves.

“You First”, Bloomsbury, May 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth
“Stay 2m Apart”, Euston, August 2020.

These tensions persist. We are hurriedly adapting a city in which living cheek by jowl was a fact of life into one in which we have to be divided from each other for our own safety.

“Watch Your Step”, Camden Town, August 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Road Narrowed”, Kentish Town, June 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of people were concerned to point out that what is popularly called social distancing is actually physical distancing. We are no less a society if we have to spread out, no less connected if we must smile with our eyes rather than our mouths.

“Respecting Social Distance”, Kentish Town, July 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.
“Morning”, Camden Town, September 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

But more could be done to turn aspirational unity into a reality. The British technology expert Rachel Coldicutt (@rachelcoldicutt) recently tweeted a link to New Zealand’s portfolio of social distancing signage, part of an integrated website which contains clear instructions and guidance for each alert level and downloadable materials to print – a consistent “ecosystem” of signs and alerts which facilitates compliance. Coldicutt highlighted that the UK has yet to develop such a consistent approach. In fact, to continue the metaphor, the UK is more a Darwinian jungle of competing graphics, symbols and designs. At least the graphic design and printing sectors of the economy are being kept in business. Though the translating industry is clearly less of a priority. The New Zealand website has a whole section devoted to translations of the materials into 24 languages. The NHS COVID 19 App launched this week, meanwhile, doesn’t have translation into Polish – though Polish remains the second most common nationality in the UK.

The laissez-faire free market in signage is creating confusion. Neighbouring shops use different measures and different images to inform their customers of what they want them to do. More confusingly, many of those images use identical symbols: the overwhwelming impression is that there are different rules for different people. And in fact this is often actually the case: using my nearest high street as an example, the customers in the greasy spoon at one end are advised to maintain 1m distance, while patrons of the upscale bakery up the road keep 2m apart. There is literally one rule for the poor and another for the rich. I want to explore the different problems associated with the signs themselves separately, so I’ll leave this point for now, but at some point the differential instructions will result in differential outcomes – if indeed they aren’t already. It is part and parcel of the government’s failure to really think beyond the laissez-faire, free-market dogma of its ideology. As long as they can eat cake, it seems, the rest of us can take our chances.

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