One in five people in Britain no longer social distancing when mixing households - as concern grows over Indian variant

One in five Brits are not social distancing when meeting people outside their household or bubble with Londoners the most likely to take a lax approach to the rules.

Office for National Statistics figures show 79% of people in Britain surveyed between 5 and 9 May said they always or often maintain social distancing measures when mixing with others in the previous seven days, with 19% saying they never social distanced or only did sometimes.

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That was down significantly on the week before, when 84% of people answered always or often, and the lowest proportion since 16 to 20 September.

It comes as the vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi urged people in the areas where the Indian variant of concern has quickly spread to follow local health advice, get tested and isolate if they test positive.

The figures, which come from the ONS’s weekly Covid lifestyle survey, only include people who had met up with someone outside their household or support or childcare bubble that week.

But the ONS said there could be many reasons for people saying they had not maintained social distancing, beyond deliberate violations such as hugging or other close contact.

As more places open, people meeting up within the rules or mixing with others inside shops could constitute breaches of social distancing, a spokesperson told NationalWorld.

Respondents are not given any prompts on what constitutes social distancing, and no distinction is made between permitted mixing where it is not possible to maintain distance – such as round a pub or restaurant table – or breaking the rules deliberately.

However, the ONS publication does place the stats in a section on “compliance with measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus”.

Other compliance remained high, with 88% of adults saying they wash their hands when they return home and 97% using face coverings.

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The figures show people in England were less likely to social distance (79%) compared to Wales (80%) and Scotland (81%).

Londoners were the least likely to maintain social distancing (71%) while the South West and West Midlands were the most likely (84%).

Nationally, women were slightly more likely to social distance – 80% compared to 79% of men.

And despite the success of the vaccination programme among older age groups, younger people were far more likely to mix without social distancing.

Among people aged 16 to 29, 67% said they always or often social distance from others, compared to 88% of 50 to 69 year olds and those aged 70 plus.

The UK Government is hoping to scrap social distancing rules in England in late June, with suggestions face masks will no longer be needed in shops and other venues.

In response to the ONS data, a Cabinet Office spokesperson pointed to Boris Johnson’s words of caution in a recent Downing Street press conference.

“I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones – whether they have had a vaccine, one or two doses, and whether there has been time for that vaccine to take effect,” the Prime Minister said.

“Next Monday we are updating the guidance on close contact between friends and family, setting out the risks for everyone to make their own choices.

“This does not mean we can suddenly throw caution to the winds. In fact, more than a year into this pandemic, we all know that close contact, such as hugging, is a direct way of transmitting this disease.”

Currently in England, a ‘one metre plus’ rule is in force, meaning people should stay one metre from people outside their bubble provided other measures are taken, such as wearing face masks or meeting outdoors.

In Scotland, people should stay two metres apart unless inside a public venue operating similar one metre plus measures.

In Wales, the rule is still two metres and businesses must do everything reasonably possible to maintain this except in limited circumstances, and in Northern Ireland, the two-metre rule is also still in place.