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By Roger Highfield on

Coronavirus: the new normal

Tomorrow (28th July), Locomotion will be our first of our five museums to open its doors to visitors. Roger Highfield, Science Director, describes the science behind reopening.

After Locomotion in Shildon, the National Railway Museum in York plans to open early next month and around the middle of August the Science & Industry Museum in Manchester, National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and the Science Museum in London will welcome visitors back.

This is the 20th and final blog in the current series by Roger Highfield on the science of the coronavirus and describes the measures that are likely to endure in our museums in one form or another until an effective vaccine is widely available.

As reported by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the UK must prepare for a potential new wave of coronavirus infections this winter that could be more serious than the first.

We will continue to produce occasional in-depth blogs to keep you abreast of the latest coronavirus science.

How does coronavirus spread?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 measures only 125 billionths of a metre across and latches on to human cells with a surface ‘spike’ protein that gives the virus its crown-like appearance (“corona” is crown in Latin) for which it is named.

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerging from the surface of cells
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, emerging from the surface of cells.
The image was captured and colorized at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.

The virus mostly spreads via small droplets released from the nose or mouth of an infected person.

Droplets are generated by more than coughing or sneezing: in infected people who have not yet developed symptoms, or those who remain without them (there are a lot of these asymptomatic infections, see below), droplets are generated while talking or simply breathing.

These droplets can either be inhaled by people nearby or can land on clothing or other surfaces and lead to virus transmission when the surfaces are touched by uninfected people.

The droplets tend to fall close to where they were released, which is why social distancing measures have been enforced because the closer we are together, the higher the risk of the virus being transmitted.

A Lancet comment article stated that there was  ‘a reduction in risk of 82% with a physical distance of 1m in both health-care and community settings’ and pointed out that ‘every additional 1m of separation more than doubled the relative protection.’

In other words, one metre is better than no metres; two metres is better than one metre, and so on – the smaller the distance, the greater the risk.

How far can the virus spread?

The smaller the exhaled droplets containing the virus, the further they spread and Governments are starting to change policies amid concerns about how far the tiniest droplets can carry SARS-CoV-2.

Scientists have signed an open letter warning that droplets may be as small as five-millionths of a metre (5 μm) and able to travel tens of metres.

The World Health Organization has also acknowledged there is emerging evidence that the coronavirus can be spread by these tiny particles – aerosols – suspended in the air and that this airborne source of virus transmission cannot be ruled out in crowded, closed or poorly ventilated settings.

A key point, however, is that the detection of coronavirus genetic material in samples by sensitive tests does not necessarily mean there is enough viable virus to transmit the infection to people.

One way to counter aerosols is to use face coverings and masks (more on this later).

Our museums are also taking a reasonable and practical approach to ventilation by identifying the areas of highest risk and treating these accordingly.

Visitors might have to tolerate cooler or hotter visits if we boost natural ventilation by supplying fresh, unconditioned air, and we will keep this under review.

However, if the evidence of aerosol transmission is confirmed, it may affect guidelines for indoor spaces, notably by putting more emphasis on providing sufficient and effective ventilation (by supplying outdoor air, minimizing recirculating air), along with measures such as air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights and avoiding overcrowding.

How will the museums cut the risk of spread?

Our visitors will have to book tickets (see the links above for each museum) in advance, which are free, and select an arrival time, to help us manage the number of people in our museums and support proper social distancing.

For those who are unable to book online, call our booking team on 0800 047 8124.

We are using timed tickets so will know when visitors have arrived and, because of our understanding of a typical visit time, we can estimate time of departure.

We will be asking visitors to make contactless payments where possible. At some points, we may ask visitors to follow self-guided or one-way routes through our museums.

We will provide detailed pre-visit guidelines to visitors, reminding them to follow Government guidelines on how to keep themselves and others safe. They will be available on our websites and will be sent via email to ticket bookers ahead of their visit.

We will also use a range of measures to cut the risk of COVID-19 spread: enhanced cleaning regime; hand sanitiser, notably in our Wonderlab interactive galleries in London and Bradford; management of pinch points to ensure social distancing; use of visors and face coverings by our front of house staff.

For more detailed information on the steps being taken at each of our museums, see below:

Locomotion –

Railway Museum –

Science and Media Museum –

Science and Industry Museum –

Science Museum –

How does ticketing fit with the Government’s test and trace system?

Capturing the contact details of ticket bookers and maintaining detailed working patterns for colleagues working on site, in line with a request from the Government’s Test and Trace programme for those who test positive, will enable us to play our part in supporting this critical method of containing outbreaks.

Studies show that the serial interval, which is the time between illness onset in successive cases in a transmission chain, can be reduced if track, trace and isolation work well.

How do you know social distancing works?

Hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as government-imposed social distancing, can help mitigate and delay a COVID-19 epidemic.

Disposable face mask, paper
Disposable face mask, paper, British, 1940-1960.

Evidence also comes from our previous experience with influenza, for example, which caused a series of pandemics, from the 1918-20 ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic to the 2009 swine flu.

In general, for influenza, social distancing measures reduced transmission of the virus and delayed its spread.

One study of 19 kinds of intervention in 17 US cities during the 1918 influenza pandemic found that cities, such as St Louis, which adopted social distancing early in the pandemic fared better than those that did not, such as Philadelphia.

However, COVID-19 is different from influenza – for instance, it is more transmissible and harder to contain.

Will you check visitors’ temperatures as they enter the museum?

We will not be checking visitors’ temperature on entry because there is not strong evidence this is very effective, not least because of the large proportion of people infected with COVID-19 are free of symptoms.

When it comes to international travel, for example, the World Health Organisation says: ‘Temperature screening alone, at exit or entry, is not an effective way to stop international spread… such measures require substantial investments for what may bear little benefits.’

Temperature screening may, however, affect behaviour.

Some argue that it may give a false sense of security, while others cite evidence from earlier outbreaks of Ebola that the ‘theatre’ of temperature screening may give the impression of improved security or even discourage people from visiting if they feel unwell.

How does Science Museum Group know it is doing the right thing?

We are working in partnership with the National Tourist Organisations of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which confirms that our museums have met government and industry COVID-19 guidelines.

How long can the new coronavirus survive in droplets and on surfaces?

Studies have suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive in air droplets for as long as three hours and on some hard surfaces for up to three days, depending on the material.

The infectious virus could be detected on copper surfaces for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for at least 72 hours.

These observations underline the value of regular disinfection of surfaces and attention to hand hygiene in controlling the spread of infection.

However, these studies have been performed under a single set of conditions (indoors with constant temperature and humidity), and with a single initial dose of virus.

Because the experiments are idealised, some believe the risks have been overstated.

However, the risks are none the less real: studies into the timing of new infections during localised outbreaks of COVID-19 at restaurants,  call centres and cruise ships suggest that large droplet and contaminated surface transmission are key routes of infection.

It is likely that virus persistence will vary in different indoor and outdoor environments – sunlight rapidly inactivates the virus, for example – and the length of time a surface remains contaminated will depend on the initial dose of virus to which it is exposed.

Are your museums doing more cleaning in response?

Yes. We have introduced enhanced cleaning regimes throughout our museums in line with Government guidance, using more people to do more cleaning (including while our museums are open) and focusing on ‘high touch’ points such as lift buttons, handrails and interactives.

Hand sanitiser stations will be located throughout our museums, including at key points in or around all galleries and exhibitions that contain interactive experiences.

We also encourage visitors to bring their own hand sanitiser and remind them to follow Government guidelines on regular handwashing with soap.

Portable bottle of hand sanitizer gel
Portable bottle of hand sanitizer gel, made by Softalind, part of medical equipment and tools supplied to members of the London’s Ambulance Cycle Response Unit.

How will you be keeping interactive exhibits safe for visitors?

Museum exhibits which involve the mouth or close contact with the face, or prolonged interaction with hard-to-clean areas will be removed from use. Other exhibits will have an increased cleaning regime, and additional control measures.

Will toilets be open, and what additional health and safety measures will be in place?

Our toilets will be open, as ever, but we have introduced new hygiene measures and enhanced cleaning regimes. We will be operating alternate sinks and alternate urinals only. Where it is more appropriate to operate a one-in-one-out system, we will do so.

A significant portion of coronavirus patients experience diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, and/or abdominal discomfort and the genetic material of the virus is detectable in stools.

Will you use hand driers?

No hand dryers will be in use; only disposable paper towels.

Thorough hand drying is as central to preventing spreading infection as thorough hand washing with soap and hot water and one recognised problem with hand dryers is that people may not dry their hands as completely as they would with paper towels.

The World Health Organisation says that hand dryers are not effective in killing the COVID-19 virus.

What is less clear, and is a battleground between paper towel and hand dryer manufacturers, is the possible transfer of aerosolised virus to the surrounding environment and people, possibly increasing the spread of infection.

Can infected people without symptoms transmit coronavirus?

Yes, and to a great extent. In fact, the majority of incidence of COVID-19 may be attributable to ‘silent transmission’.

More than three-quarters of people – 78% – report no symptoms by the time they test positive for coronavirus, according to data released by the Office of National Statistics.

Other studies show the proportion of infected people who show no symptoms is high. In a study of Vo’, a small town near Padua, Italy, it was found that 42.5% of the confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections were asymptomatic. Another study, conducted in Belgian care homes, found no symptoms in 6244 (74·8%) of 8343 people who tested positive.

The viral load of symptomatic and asymptomatic people is similar too. Crucially, there is evidence that infected people who never develop symptoms – asymptomatic carriers – can also transmit coronavirus.

Studies of patients with COVID-19 indicate that viable virus can be detected in swabs up to six days before the onset of symptoms. One study estimated that 44% of secondary cases were infected during this presymptomatic stage. Another estimated that between one-third and one-half of transmissions occur from presymptomatic individuals.

Swabs in test tubes
Swabs in test tubes, 1901-1930

By one estimate, asymptomatic persons can transmit the virus to others for an extended period, perhaps longer than 14 days.

Both testing and widespread adoption of masks can combat the spread of the virus in aerosols and droplets from people who show no symptoms.

The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, argues for widespread face mask adoption where social distancing is difficult to maintain to control the pandemic by reducing the shedding of droplets into the environment from asymptomatic individuals.

Recently, it went further and, based on the latest evidence, argued that face masks may protect the wearer as well as those around them. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President, said: ‘If all of us wear one, we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission.

We lower the chances of future surges and lockdowns which are economically and psychologically disruptive, and we increase the chance of eliminating the virus. Not doing so increases the risk for everyone, from NHS workers to your grandmother.’

What is your position on face masks?

Update, 31 July: People in England will be required to wear face coverings in museums from 8 August, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

We strongly recommend our visitors wear them. Evidence has grown over the course of the pandemic to show that they are helpful – as Sir Venki said: “It is the right thing to do, and a small price to pay, to help keep infections down and the economy open in the pandemic.”

In Germany, for example, the introduction of mandatory face masks has slowed down the spread of COVID-19, according to one article:  ‘Consider a region in which the number of COVID-19 cases increased by 10% from one day to another. This increase would have been only 6% if there had been an obligation to wear face masks. With a 10% daily increase in COVID-19, cases double within 7 days; in contrast, a 6% daily increase means cases double only within 12 days.’

In America, a study concluded that requiring face mask use in public might help in mitigating COVID-19 spread.

Another study, on the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, showed the value of face coverings and social distancing. Even President Trump has changed his mind regarding wearing masks, now calling it ‘patriotic.’

Concerns about ‘risk compensation’ — that is, increasing risky behaviour after adopting masks— are unfounded.

There are also various myths about how face coverings cut oxygen levels, harm the immune system and so on.

The Government has issued advice on how to make face coverings. As video studies of droplet spread have shown, the more layers the better.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

At the start of the pandemic, we were told the symptoms to watch for were a dry cough and a fever. To these have now been added a loss of smell and taste.  Most people with coronavirus have at least one of these symptoms.

There are other symptoms which include fatigue, and diarrhoea, as well as rarer ones such as rashes around the lips and extremities.

When will your museums reopen?

Locomotion, Shildon – Tuesday 28 July

National Railway Museum, York – Tuesday 4 August

Science and Industry Museum, Manchester – Friday, 14 August (11 August trial day with pre-selected visitors)

National Science and Media Museum, Bradford – Wednesday 19 August

Science Museum, London – 19 August (17 August invited visitors only and 18 August available to email subscribers, Wonderlab Annual Pass holders and National Art Pass)

Take a glimpse of the Science Museum’s preparations for reopening.

Why aren’t SMG’s museums opening at the same time?

Our museums in London, Manchester, York, Bradford and Shildon are very different and, ultimately, the health and safety of our visitors and staff is our top priority in determining the reopening dates.


The latest picture of how far the pandemic has spread can be seen on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center or Robert Koch-Institute.

You can check the number of UK COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases and deaths along with figures from the Office of National Statistics.

There is more information in my earlier blog posts (including in German by focusTerra, ETH Zürich, with additional information on Switzerland), from the UKRI, the EUUS Centers for Disease ControlWHO, on this COVID-19 portal and Our World in Data.

The Science Museum Group is collecting objects and ephemera to document this health emergency for future generations.