Pub or plane – which poses the biggest COVID risk?

An hour in the pub or several hours cooped up with the same 200 people on a plane – which poses the greatest risk of coronavirus transmission. Tony McDonough reports

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A night in the pub poses a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than a plane journey, say experts


You may imagine being sat in the confines of a plane for several hours with 200 other people gave you a greater risk over catching COVID-19 than an hour in the pub.

Not so, according to one expert who say the conditions in a pub create the “perfect storm” for spreading coronavirus. Outbreaks in the last few days in Preston and Aberdeen, linked to transmission in pubs and homes, appear to back this assertion up.

Analysis of aircraft passengers on flights between China and Singapore and China and Canada earlier in the year, which included passengers who had tested positive for coronavirus, indicated the transmission risk to be relatively low.

Despite a commercial aircraft being basically a small tube, they are actually very well ventilated. And good ventilation is shown to be effective in minimising the risk of transmission. People also tend to talk more quietly on planes, and often not at all, reducing the aerosol effect from their mouths.

However, in pubs, it is a different story. They will likely have poor ventilation than you would find on a plane. You are also more likely to speak more loudly and directly facing other people, expelling droplets in their direction. Although it is important to point out the risk falls if you are in an outside drinking space.

According to Dr Julian W Tang, honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, if you can smell the garlic on someone’s breath that means you are close enough to be at risk of inhaling any droplets they are expelling.

Plane’s are usually well ventilated and pose a lower risk


He told the Press Association: “If the air space is poorly ventilated, that air that’s full of virus is not going to go anywhere. It’s going to linger there until the virus dries up and dies over time.”

He added that this the most common method of transmission in the UK was likely this kind of “conversational exposure”. He pointed out that if someone cracks a joke and the other people around start laughing, then their exposure to exhaled air is significant.

On the comparison with the plane, he said: “It’s even worse because the aeroplane has very good ventilation. The pubs don’t have very good ventilation. I think a plane is safer because of that ventilation system efficiency.

“To be honest, on a plane the danger is from your nearest neighbours because that air is not filtered away quickly enough before you inhale it. That’s the main risk on a plane.”

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