How to meet friends and family safely outdoors

In England, the second milestone in the government's roadmap out of lockdown has been reached and we're now allowed to see friends and family outside. But that doesn't mean the risk of spreading COVID-19 has vanished; you still need to take precautions to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

From 29th March, if you live in England you can meet outside, including in private gardens, in groups of up to six or in larger groups if there are only two households.

In Scotland, groups of six people from up to three households should be able to meet outdoors from 26th April. In Wales, the previous four person/two household limit for people meeting outdoors increased to six people from two households from 27th March. In Northern Ireland, up to six people (including children) from two households will be allowed to meet outdoors in a private garden from April 1st.

Evidence shows that it's harder for COVID-19 to spread in outdoor spaces, so for now this is the safest way to meet friends and family. Dr Deborah Lee, of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, and Hussain Abdeh, superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, explain how to reduce your risk of COVID-19 when meeting friends and family.

Following the rules

Dr Lee says it's important to follow the rules of exiting lockdown "very carefully".

"If we don't, virus levels could rise, and we may well find ourselves in the midst of a third wave - and a further period of lockdown," she adds. "For now, the same restrictions apply in terms of social distancing, handwashing, and mask-wearing. It's vital that we stick to these guidelines as we have been and don't stop doing them too soon."

The fourth element of the English 'Hands, Face, Space' guidance - fresh air - is automatically accomplished outside. Once we start meeting inside, ventilation will be very important.

Sadly, it's still too early to hug your friends and family even outside, as this greatly increases the risk of transmission.

"Physical contact - handshakes, hugging, kissing - should be avoided. If you meet for a walk or a picnic, do your best to stay a few feet away from those friends or family members who are not in your household at all times," Abdeh adds.

If you think you have COVID-19 you should not meet anyone. It's important you stay at home and book a test. You must continue to self-isolate until you have your test results. If you test positive, you must continue to self-isolate for ten days after your test or from the onset of your symptoms.

Social but distant

While we are allowed to see friends and family, social distancing rules are still very important. Maintaining a safe distance means you're less likely to pass on or contract coronavirus.

"Many people are yet to be vaccinated, so the spread of COVID-19 is far from eliminated," Abdeh says.

"When restrictions were last eased, we saw a significant spike in cases once again, so it is vital that we do all we can to reduce the risk of this happening again. Social distancing is an easy and sensible measure we can take to avoid passing this respiratory disease on to other people. The less close contact you have with others, the less likely you are to catch the virus."

Government guidelines encourage everyone to maintain a two-metre distance from anyone not in their household or support bubble. If staying two metres apart isn't possible, this can be reduced to one metre with other precautions in place, such as wearing masks.

To mask or not to mask

Under English government guidelines, it's not compulsory to wear a mask outside, but if you feel more comfortable wearing one, you can. If there are circumstances where social distancing is hard to maintain then it's a good idea to wear a mask for extra precaution.

Wearing face masks is still a requirement in many indoor settings, including in supermarkets, in hospitals and on public transport, unless you have a specific exemption.

"Wearing a mask is most effective at preventing you from transmitting the infection to another person," Dr Lee explains. "So, everyone should reach for their mask if they arrive at a crowded spot, to help protect each other."

Skip to the loo

If you're meeting in a private garden, you are allowed to use the toilet inside - after all, no one wants you relieving yourself in their flowerpots. But you still need to make sure you're taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, even though no one should come with you into the house when you go to the loo.

Dr Lee says you should:

  • Wait for 30 minutes before going into the toilet after someone else, to allow the air to settle (virus particles are spread in the air).
  • Don't take any items like mobile phones or handbags into the toilet with you.
  • Don't switch on the light unless you need to, to avoid touching the switch or cord pull after someone else.
  • Wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before entering the toilet.
  • Put the toilet seat down before flushing.
  • Wash your hands carefully before leaving the toilet and use a disposable paper towel if possible.

If you're the host, it's a good idea to make sure there are antiviral wipes in the bathroom for people to clean surfaces once they've used them. You should also clean the bathroom before and after you have guests over. Keep the window open at all times to increase airflow in the room - increasing airflow can reduce the spread of the virus.

Piece of cake

Now we're allowed to meet outside, many people will be planning a picnic. While that might seem harmless, it actually poses a real risk of spreading COVID-19 because people are often sharing food and drink. That shouldn't scare you off a picnic though - you just need to make sure you're taking all the necessary precautions.

"If you have a picnic, you should not share your food with others. People should bring their own food in their own containers," Abdeh says.

"Do not share any cutlery, drinks or utensils. You must do everything you can to avoid cross-contamination, so cut down the need for more than one person to touch any object. Everyone bringing their own utensils, drinks and food will mean that nothing needs to be touched by two people."

It's also important to remember space - the more space you have between people the more you can minimise the risk of COVID-19.

"Try to have a picnic in a large open area, where there is plenty of room for every member of your party to spread out and maintain social distancing effectively," Abdeh adds. "Bring hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes, which you should use on all containers and hampers."

The good news is, barbecues are still on the menu. It really isn't a British summer without a barbecue.

"Hot food, such as barbecue food, is highly unlikely to transmit the virus but should be served directly from the barbecue on to each person's plate, not served from a shared platter," Dr Lee adds.

That's a wrap

Meeting people outdoors is fairly safe if you follow the right guidelines. It's important to remember that the risk of COVID-19 will always be there as long as the virus is still in circulation, but if you stick to the rules then you're unlikely to put yourself or your loved ones at extra risk.

When you meet people outside you must make sure you:

  • Socially distance - stay at least one metre apart from people outside of your household but increase to two metres or more wherever possible.
  • Regularly use an antiviral hand sanitiser or wash your hands thoroughly with soap, especially after touching any shared surfaces.
  • Wear masks when in enclosed spaces, and also when walking through someone's home to use the toilet or when in groups of people.
  • Wipe down any shared surfaces, including bathroom counters and garden furniture, with antiviral spray.
  • Don't share food or utensils when having a picnic - it's best if everyone brings their own food in their own containers.
  • Stick to the rules - as tough as they might be and as tempting as it is to meet people indoors, the more people who do that the higher the chances of the virus getting out of control again.

More information about the government's roadmap out of lockdown, including when the next date for relaxing of rules is, can be found on the government's website.

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