What does the Coronavirus R number mean for your business?

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The government is relaxing the lock down as from today, with the vulnerable allowed to go for a walk and meet one person (socially distanced) outside their home. Most other people can meet up to 6 people (in England) in outdoor spaces including back gardens (again socially distanced) but more importantly schools are opening and so are some businesses. From today, outdoor markets and car showrooms can reopen and it’s all down to the Coronavirus R number being below 1.

So what is the Coronavirus R number and why does it matter? It’s the reproduction rate of the virus and if you listen to many news outlets they state it is how infectious the virus is and how many other people a single infected person will infect in turn. However this isn’t quite correct – the Coronavirus R number is the average number of secondary infections produced by 1 infected person.

Averages are funny things – If the R is three then on average three people will catch a secondary infection from on other person. If the R is one (currently estimated between 0.7 and 1) then on average only one person will be infected. But this does NOT mean if one infected person comes into the work place that only one other person will be infected.

The problem with workplaces is that, unless you have put social distancing in place, people will be passing by each other all day long, multiple people will be touching door handles and equipment. Shared keyboards or tape guns can pass the virus around and as teh Coronavirus R number is an average there’s every possibility that one infected person could infect a ton of work colleagues.

Bear in mind, that the average means the people who are infected but lives alone, self isolates and don’t infect anyone bring the average down, but this also means that there will be people who infect a dozen or more people. Don’t let that be an employee at your work place as it could, with NHS Track and Trace now live, shut your entire business down.

Bear in mind that no matter how well you know your employees and no matter how diligent they are at complying with lock down rules, it only takes a house mate to meet a chum at the park behind their back for the virus to be transmitted back at home and then into the work place.

The government has published a whole raft of documents on how to keep the workplace COVID-19 Secure, including an entire document aimed at warehouses. There is one way to ensure that the localised Coronavirus R number in your business is zero or close to zero and that is to have full social distancing and a scrupulous cleaning regime. Keep workers that have to work together in small teams which never change so that if one team has sickness the minimum number of employees are infected.

For you and your business, this means it’s the most dangerous time as a single infected employee could shut you down for 14 days if others have to isoloate… and this could happen repeatedly but full social distancing of 2m will prevent this happening.

There has been some discussion over whether 1m spacing is sufficient as this is the advice adopted by many countries and the World Health Organisation. Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance estimates that 1m social distancing is somewhere between 10 and 30 times as risky as 2m distancing. However the big reason for using 2m social distancing in the work place that should be of interest to you is that if an employee becomes infected none of your other employees will need to isolate at home.

There is every expectation that with the relaxations in the lock down that infection rates will rise. Currently the chances of catching Coronavirus are down to 1 in 1000, whereas recently it was more like 1 in 40 and it’s not inconceivable that the Coronavirus R number could rise back above 1 which will mean the spread of the virus starts to accelerate again. If the R rises so does the chance of one of your employees being infected so if you’ve not already got full social distancing in place now is the time to do so. Full advice is here.



Sajid Javid thanks Volo for NHS PPE Portal expertise


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