Covid: Can you catch the virus outside?

By David Shukman
Science editor

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Media caption,
Lockdown easing: The BBC’s science editor David Shukman explains the risks and what to watch for in different locations.

More of us are now able to meet up outside with friends and family.

"The evidence is very clear that outdoor spaces are safer than indoors," Prof Chris Whitty, the UK's chief medical officer, has said.

What makes the outdoors safer?

Researchers say infections can happen outdoors, but the chances are massively reduced.

Fresh air disperses and dilutes the virus.

It also helps to evaporate the liquid droplets in which it is carried.

On top of that, ultraviolet light from the Sun should kill any virus that's out in the open.

Even so, there are a handful of cases where it's believed that infections did happen outside.

One study found that two men in China talking face-to-face for at least 15 minutes was enough to spread the virus.

Image source, Getty Images

How close are you to others?

If someone's infected - maybe without realising it because they have no symptoms - they'll be releasing the virus as they breathe, especially if they cough.

Some of that will be carried in droplets, most of which will quickly fall to the ground but could reach your eyes, nose or mouth if you're within 2m (6ft) of them.

So the advice is to avoid being face-to-face if you're that close.

The infected person will also release smaller particles called aerosols.

Indoors, these can accumulate in the air and be a hazard. Outside they should rapidly disperse.

How long are you together for?

Walking past someone in the street or having a jogger run by you, means you're close together for a few seconds at most.

Fleeting encounters are highly unlikely to be long enough for enough virus to reach you.

Prof Cath Noakes, an airborne infection expert from the University of Leeds, says someone would have to cough right at you, at the moment you're inhaling, for an infection to happen.

But she also warns of friends spending a long time together outdoors and assuming they're completely safe.

Going for a run with someone and following close behind them for 20 minutes or more, breathing in their slipstream, might be a problem, she says.

"The sad fact is that your greatest risk is from the people you know."

Image source, EPA

Are you properly out in the open?

Scientists have found that the risks are low in fully open spaces.

But they worry about areas that are not just crowded but also partly enclosed, such as market stalls or bus shelters.

Whenever the air is still, it can become stagnant and contaminated.

It's in environments like narrow pathways or busy queues that government advisers say face coverings may be needed.

Can you catch it from surfaces?

If an infected person coughs into their hand and then wipes it on a surface, the virus may survive there for hours.

Researchers in the US found virus on the handles of rubbish bins and the buttons at pedestrian crossings.

They reckon this may have led to infections in the area, though at a relatively low level compared with other ways of spreading the virus.

In colder weather, the virus may last longer in the open - it thrives in low temperatures.

Added to that, your nose runs in the cold, and a common reaction is to wipe it with your hand.

That might raise the chances of surfaces becoming contaminated.

However, many scientists now think that the amount of virus likely to be left on a surface in this way would be minimal, and would disperse within an hour or two.

"The chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small," says Prof Emmanuel Goldman of Rutgers University.

Image source, Alamy

Where are the risks greatest?

All the evidence points to the vast majority of Covid infections happening indoors.

The virus is transmitted through human interaction, especially when people are together for a long period of time.

That means the virus can spread in several different ways.

Either infected droplets can land on people close by, or contaminate surfaces that others touch.

And if rooms are stuffy, tiny virus particles can accumulate in the air and get inhaled.

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CoronaVirus translator

What do all these terms mean?

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  • Antibodies test

    A medical test that can show if a person has had the coronavirus and now has some immunity. The test detects antibodies in the blood, which are produced by the body to fight off the disease.

  • Asymptomatic

    Someone who has a disease but does not have any of the symptoms it causes. Some studies suggest some people with coronavirus carry the disease but don't show the common symptoms, such as a persistent cough or high temperature.

  • Containment phase

    The first part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, which involved trying to identify infected people early and trace anyone who had been in close contact with them.

  • Coronavirus

    One of a group of viruses that can cause severe or mild illness in humans and animals. The coronavirus currently sweeping the world causes the disease Covid-19. The common cold and influenza (flu) are other types of coronaviruses.

  • Covid-19

    The disease caused by the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. It primarily affects the lungs.

  • Delay phase

    The second part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, in which measures such as social distancing are used to delay its spread.

  • Fixed penalty notice

    A fine designed to deal with an offence on the spot, instead of in court. These are often for driving offences, but now also cover anti-social behaviour and breaches of the coronavirus lockdown.

  • Flatten the curve

    Health experts use a line on a chart to show numbers of new coronavirus cases. If a lot of people get the virus in a short period of time, the line might rise sharply and look a bit like a mountain. However, taking measures to reduce infections can spread cases out over a longer period and means the "curve" is flatter. This makes it easier for health systems to cope.

  • Flu

    Short for influenza, a virus that routinely causes disease in humans and animals, in seasonal epidemics.

  • Furlough

    Supports firms hit by coronavirus by temporarily helping pay the wages of some staff. It allows employees to remain on the payroll, even though they aren't working.

  • Herd immunity

    How the spread of a disease slows after a sufficiently large proportion of a population has been exposed to it.

  • Immune

    A person whose body can withstand or fend off a disease is said to be immune to it. Once a person has recovered from the disease caused by the coronavirus, Covid-19, for example, it is thought they cannot catch it again for a certain period of time.

  • Incubation period

    The period of time between catching a disease and starting to display symptoms.

  • Intensive care

    Hospital wards which treat patients who are very ill. They are run by specially-trained healthcare staff and contain specialist equipment.

  • Lockdown

    Restrictions on movement or daily life, where public buildings are closed and people told to stay at home. Lockdowns have been imposed in several countries as part of drastic efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.

  • Mitigation phase

    The third part of the UK's strategy to deal with the coronavirus, which will involve attempts to lessen the impact of a high number of cases on public services. This could mean the NHS halting all non-critical care and police responding to major crimes and emergencies only.

  • NHS 111

    The NHS's 24-hour phone and online service, which offers medical advice to anyone who needs it. People in England and Wales are advised to ring the service if they are worried about their symptoms. In Scotland, they should check NHS inform, then ring their GP in office hours or 111 out of hours. In Northern Ireland, they should call their GP.

  • Outbreak

    Multiple cases of a disease occurring rapidly, in a cluster or different locations.

  • Pandemic

    An epidemic of serious disease spreading rapidly in many countries simultaneously.

  • Phase 2

    This is when the UK will start to lift some of its lockdown rules while still trying to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

  • PPE

    PPE, or personal protective equipment, is clothing and kit such as masks, aprons, gloves and goggles used by medical staff, care workers and others to protect themselves against infection from coronavirus patients and other people who might be carrying the disease.

  • Quarantine

    The isolation of people exposed to a contagious disease to prevent its spread.

  • R0

    R0, pronounced "R-naught", is the average number of people who will catch the disease from a single infected person. If the R0 of coronavirus in a particular population is 2, then on average each case will create two more new cases. The value therefore gives an indication of how much the infection could spread.

  • Recession

    This happens when there is a significant drop in income, jobs and sales in a country for two consecutive three-month periods.

  • Sars

    Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a type of coronavirus that emerged in Asia in 2003.

  • Self-isolation

    Staying inside and avoiding all contact with other people, with the aim of preventing the spread of a disease.

  • Social distancing

    Keeping away from other people, with the aim of slowing down transmission of a disease. The government advises not seeing friends or relatives other than those you live with, working from home where possible and avoiding public transport.

  • State of emergency

    Measures taken by a government to restrict daily life while it deals with a crisis. This can involve closing schools and workplaces, restricting the movement of people and even deploying the armed forces to support the regular emergency services.

  • Statutory instrument

    These can be used by government ministers to implement new laws or regulations, or change existing laws. They are an easier alternative to passing a full Act of Parliament.

  • Symptoms

    Any sign of disease, triggered by the body's immune system as it attempts to fight off the infection. The main symptoms of the coronavirus are a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.

  • Vaccine

    A treatment that causes the body to produce antibodies, which fight off a disease, and gives immunity against further infection.

  • Ventilator

    A machine that takes over breathing for the body when disease has caused the lungs to fail.

  • Virus

    A tiny agent that copies itself inside the living cells of any organism. Viruses can cause these cells to die and interrupt the body's normal chemical processes, causing disease.

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