Government scientists said ministers should discourage the public from shaking hands on the same day that Boris Johnson said he had shaken hands with “everybody” on a visit to a hospital with coronavirus patients, newly released documents have revealed.
Members of a scientific advisory committee agreed on 3 March that official advice should warn against handshaking for hygiene reasons, and ministers should instead promote an alternative greeting.
But later that day, Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that he had not ditched the traditional form of greeting.
“I can tell you that I’m shaking hands continuously,” he said.
“I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands”.
Two days later the prime minister made a point of shaking hands with Phillip Schofield, even though the presenter kept his hands to his sides when he interviewed him on ITV’s This Morning.
He was then photographed on 9 March shaking hands with the boxer Anthony Joshua at the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey.
Records released by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) have revealed that its Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) had discussed the issue earlier that day.
And it came to a clear conclusion: “There was agreement that government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene.
“Promoting a replacement greeting or encouraging others to politely decline a proffered handshake may have benefit.”
Mr Johnson later made clear he had given up handshaking, but he has since been criticised for encouraging public complacency about the need to change behaviour in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
His comments came at a time when the elbow-nudge or “Wuhan handshake” – touching shoes – were becoming popular as a means to avoid the skin-to-skin contact which can spread coronavirus.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson today said the PM would not have seen the SPI-B paper by the time he made his comments, which referred to a hospital visit a few days before.
“The PM was very clear at the time that he was taking a number of precautionary steps, including frequently washing his hands,” said the spokesperson.
“Once the social distancing advice was changed, the prime minister’s approach changed.”
“The Sage papers are papers which have been considered by Sage and inform the advice that Sage has given to ministers, they are not Sage’s final advice to ministers.
“In terms of the prime minister, I wouldn’t be able to say if he would ever have seen that document.”
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