4 Mar 2020

FactCheck Q&A: how do you avoid Coronavirus? Here’s what the experts say

Ministers have been pushing the message that good hand hygiene is a simple way to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

There are now 85 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus or Covid-19 in the UK, and the government has just published its action plan.

What can ordinary people do to help prevent the spread of the disease? Should you wear a mask? Do hand sanitizers work? How do you keep your hands clean?


The global spread of the coronavirus so far (March 4, 2020)

Washing hands

In recent days, ministers have been pushing the message that good hand hygiene is a simple way to help prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Much of the advice on hand-washing from the NHS, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is identical.

They say people should wash their hands often, taking at least 20 seconds to complete the job, paying attention to parts of the hands it’s easy to miss – like the fingertips, the thumbs, and the spaces in between the fingers.

How hot?

Everyone agrees that soap and water is a must, although neither the WHO nor the NHS specify in their online hand-washing guides that the water has to be hot. The CDC guide states that the water can be “warm or cold”. A WHO spokesman told FactCheck: “The water temperature isn’t important.”

That’s surprising, because both the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have stressed in recent media appearances that people should use soap and hot water.

Mr Hancock went further in a recent interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, saying: “You should wash your hands with soap and hot water, because hot water kills the virus.”

FactCheck asked the Department of Health if there was any evidence to back this claim, but none has been forthcoming.

Individual experts have told us that the important thing is for the water to be a comfortable temperature.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, Senior Clinical Lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School, said “warm water” was preferable, adding: “People don’t wash their hands properly when the water is cold and uncomfortable. This is a big issue and problem in public places and especially schools where hand-washing facilities are embarrassingly poor.”

Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology, University of Reading, said: “Viruses are easily killed with soap, so using plenty of soap and water of any temperature is enough to remove the vast majority and reduce the chance of spreading infection.

“Very high temperature will also kill them, but that’s not why the advice mentions using hot water – it’s because using hot water is more comfortable than cold, which makes it more likely that people will wash properly.

“Very hot, or nearly boiling water can clearly burn your skin, meaning that people might not wash their hands effectively by trying not to burn themselves. So it’s better that people rub their hands together and rinse effectively with water of a more comfortable temperature.”

Should you use hand sanitizer?

We’ve seen claims on social media that hand sanitizers will not be effective against viruses, but this runs against advice from public health authorities.

Public Health England and others recommend the use of sanitizers that contain at least 60 per cent alcohol, but stress that washing with soap and water is more effective and should be the first choice for hand hygiene.

Should you stay away from other people?

NHS advice is avoid close contact with people who are sick, and to stay off work or school if you are feeling unwell.

The advice states that “most people can continue to go to work, school and other public places”, adding: “You only need to stay away from public places (self-isolate) if advised to by the 111 online coronavirus service or a medical professional.”

The government says in its action plan that it may implement “population distancing strategies” in the future like closing schools and cancelling large gatherings to delay the progress of the illness.

Should you wear a mask?

The WHO, Public Health England the CDC all say that wearing masks isn’t necessary for healthy people unless they are caring for others who may have the virus.

Experts say the light surgical masks used by medical professionals offer relatively little protection from viral particles need to be changed frequently and disposed of properly to be effective.

Heavier masks rated N95 or higher offer more protection against infection from coughs and sneezes but they are more expensive and are not recommended for the general public.