How the beach 'super-spreader' myth can inform UK's future Covid response
They were images that seemed to define a hot, febrile, and dangerous summer: massed ranks of daytrippers swamping Britain’s beaches, making the most of the June sunshine after months of restrictions – and, some front pages suggested, creating an appalling risk of coronavirus infection. Eight months later, the headlines tell a different story: there was no real danger at all. According to Prof Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at Edinburgh University who sits on the government’s SPI-M committee, the chance of a super-spreader event among the crowds that turned up from Bournemouth to Southend was minimal in theory – and nonexistent in practice.
“Over the summer we were treated to all this on the television news, pictures of crowded beaches, and there was an outcry about this,” he told MPs. “There were no outbreaks linked to public beaches. There’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a beach, ever, anywhere in the world, to the best of my knowledge.” If that version of events seems at odds with stern warnings from the health secretary, Matt Hancock, that outdoor exercise could be banned, and an accusation that sunbathers were putting lives at risk, it is wholly consistent with the scientific evidence, other experts agree.
“We have known for some time that only about 10% of transmission events are linked to outdoor activities,” said Dr M?ge ?evik, a lecturer in infectious diseases and medical virology at the University of St Andrews. “Even those events generally involve either prolonged close contact or a mixture of indoor and outdoor time. We had a lot of existing knowledge even when the pandemic began about respiratory viruses and how they transmit in general, and everything directs us to the conditions in people’s homes and workplaces.”
Nobody disputes that there were some possible knock-on risks during the heatwave, on crowded trains or overused toilets – and the traffic jams and litter the crowds brought had a very real effect on local residents’ quality of life. Still, reality was never quite as apocalyptic as the telephoto lens pictures which appeared to show a sea of humanity all but on top of each other – in fact, for the most part, just a trick of perspective. Instead, some suggest, Woolhouse’s intervention is a reminder that the narrative propagated in parts of the media about the daytrippers had some of the qualities of a moral panic.
Woolhouse, for his part, has been taken by surprise by the interest in his comments – which he presumed to be a statement of a generally understood fact. “This is not a subtle picture,” he said. “The published studies were already quite clear at the time … but after the reaction to my comment I am now concerned that this is not fully understood and maybe this is something the politicians do need to factor more into their thinking. As they make their plans to get us out of this, maybe they do need to be reappraised of where the risks really lie.”
To Vikki Slade, the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council leader for the Lib Dems who was ousted a few months later by the Conservatives, Woolhouse’s evidence is a bitterly ironic reminder of the difficulties she and her colleagues faced. “We were under siege,” she said. “I was working all hours, I had satellite trucks lined up outside my house for interviews. It felt like the world had come to Bournemouth.” With the media spotlight simply intensifying local anger, “we were trying to balance the message that there was no evidence that large numbers of people coming to the beach presented a risk, but there was a negative impact on the local community in terms of their fear and perception of harm.
And we just had insufficient resources to deal with the influx. But there was not a danger around the virus – it was the arrival of so many people into a small area without enough facilities open to deal with them.” Lucy Yardley, a professor of health psychology at the University of Southampton who sits on Sage, suggested that the government must learn the lessons from last summer’s debacle – and bear in mind that if people are barred from congregating outside, they are more likely to do so indoors, where the risks are greater.
“It’s a really important message, and this is the right time to push it home,” she said. “The difference between indoor and outdoor is huge. Every report about restrictions and enforcement focused on outdoor contacts distracts from the places where the transmission is really happening.” To ?evik, the hysteria over the beach gatherings in some quarters was, above all, evidence of how dislocated some pockets of social media users are from the reality of about 15 million people who are still going to work every day. “Low-income families have been working throughout this pandemic, and they are much more likely to live in overcrowded housing,” she said. “If you live in a big house and order everything on Amazon, you might be shocked by those images.
But they’re missing the bigger picture.”