Time to lift COVID restrictions on research

Scotland’s 19 universities are asking that the Scottish Government address an anomaly in the route-map out of COVID restrictions, which means that academics doing research in laboratories must still work at two metres distance from each other, in stark contrast to most other sectors of the economy which have been operating at one metre or less for weeks.

The Scottish Government is expected to announce the outcomes of a review of physical distancing next Tuesday [22 June]. Universities across the country are calling on the Scottish Government to address this oversight which is hampering the effectiveness of vital research. University research looks to address society’s biggest challenges, including ill-health and the climate emergency. The pandemic has shone a new light on the importance of university research as many Scottish institutions have been integral to the research effort into COVID-19. Research is core to universities’ missions and it is currently being frustrated by an unnecessary level of restrictions placed on laboratories.

Calling for this anomaly to be addressed, Alastair Sim, Director of Universities Scotland, said:

“We simply can’t understand why lab-based university research is still forced to operate at two metre distance; these are some of the most highly controlled environments in the country, where staff are used to wearing PPE and following safety protocols every day. It seems that our labs were somehow overlooked when the rest of society and the economy was allowed to re-open.

“We estimate that at two metre distance, our research capacity is operating somewhere between 25 to 30 per cent. A shift to one metre distance could double that in the short-term – and we hope removal of physical distancing rules in these safe environments may be possible soon. Many of these university research teams are part of the fight against coronavirus or they lead research into cancer, dementia or climate solutions. It would help enormously if this distance anomaly is addressed as part of next week’s review as led by the First Minister.”

University research is a significant contributor Scotland’s economy just like other sectors such as retail or construction. Last year, university research brought £1.6 billion of revenue into Scotland. The higher education sector employs 15,700 researchers across the country, though not all conduct their research in laboratory settings.

University labs across the country lead important work, tackling some of society’s biggest challenges. Examples include:

  • research into COVID-19 vaccines and virus behaviour at the University of Glasgow
  • the University of Edinburgh’s recent “trojan horse” research breakthrough which found a cancer-killing molecule
  • the University of St Andrew’s discovery of potential new treatment for diabetes
  • research led by the University of the West of Scotland and Scotland’s salmon industry to continuously sample 30 biomarkers in fish to give a more accurate and rapid analysis of their health
  • the University of the Highlands and Island is trialling a new method of measuring tidal currents which could revolutionise marine renewables.

Under different COVID restrictions and a different route map in England, university laboratories have been able to operate safely at one metre distance throughout lockdown and the most intense phases of the pandemic. Use of personal, protective equipment and adherence to safety protocols is the norm in such environments and laboratories tend to be well-ventilated spaces given they involve the use of chemicals and other toxins.

The comparison between Scotland and England is pertinent given that research funding is competitive and universities across the country compete for the same research grants. Research teams in England are at an advantage in terms of being able to progress their work more effectively.



The current Scottish Government COVID-19 guidance for laboratories and research facilities can be found at this link. The distancing requirements are on page 5. The relevant extract reads:

“Laboratories and research facilities have continued to operate under the 2 metre physical distancing rule throughout the pandemic. Organisations must ensure that at least 2 metre physical distancing is applied to all parts of a workplace and all communal areas including entrances, exits, break rooms, smoking areas”