Handwashing habits in UK, Australia changed during COVID-19 pandemic

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People’s hand hygiene habits have changed for the better during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research in the United Kingdom.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Ipsos Mori studied consumer hand hygiene behavior during the pandemic in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between April 2020 and January 2021. Each quarter, 2,000 adults were surveyed. A dozen people also did an app-based diary for two weeks and were interviewed.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed consumer’s usual habits with an increase in the time spent handwashing, the thoroughness of washing hands and the scenarios in which people wash their hands or use hand sanitizing gel, according to the report.

Pandemic impact
Participants knew that handwashing should last for at least 20 seconds and involve soap, warm water, and a clean towel. Despite this, the proportion who reported washing their hands for 20 to 24 seconds was only 35 percent in April 2020 and dropped to 31 percent in January 2021.

Respondents considered their home to be a safe space which led them to believe it was not necessary to wash hands as regularly. Many had a new routine since the pandemic of washing hands when arriving home to reduce their risk of COVID-19.

Outside the home settings once considered safe, such as supermarkets, restaurants or cafes, and the workplace became sites where people felt at risk of contracting COVID-19. There was a significant increase in participants who reported always washing their hands when returning home between April 2020 and January 2021. Some described wiping food packaging with disinfectant wipes after getting home from a shop or accepting deliveries because of concerns about contracting the virus.

The research provided evidence that handwashing behaviors are influenced by family, friends, educational settings, and cultural background. When these ways become habitual, they stay with people for a long time, according to the report.

Food related hygiene findings
Some participants doubted the hand hygiene of those serving or preparing food in restaurants or takeaways. Men, younger age groups and participants who self-reported as food handlers were less likely to always wash their hands in a range of scenarios at home.

Participants showed good handwashing practices whilst preparing food, particularly to avoid cross-contamination from raw meat, fish, and eggs and because of a fear of food poisoning. They were less likely to wash their hands when handling food considered to be lower risk such as salads or fruit. Participants were more likely to wash hands before cooking or preparing food than before eating.

More than 80 percent of people reported always washing their hands after using the toilet. However, hand hygiene behaviors could be improved before eating, after handling dry rubbish, handling and feeding pets, and coughing and sneezing.

The quarterly tracker will continue until January 2022 to see if any changes in handwashing behaviors are sustained.

Some people anticipate changing their current hand hygiene routines when the pandemic ends; whilst some had already reduced handwashing in line with easing restrictions. Others wanted to maintain their new routines beyond the pandemic.

Australia’s hand hygiene decline
Meanwhile, there has been a 15 percent decrease in the number of times Australians washed or sanitized their hands a day compared to the same time in 2020.

The Food Safety Information Council released the Omnipoll research to mark Global Handwashing Day this past week. It was conducted nationally online in late September with 1,215 people aged 18 years and older.

One in six people couldn’t recall how often they washed their hands and used hand sanitizer on the previous day. Others reported that they washed hands six or seven times a day compared with 7.5 times in 2020 and sanitized them 3.3 times a day versus 3.9 times this past year.

There was a difference between genders with women saying they washed their hands, on average, 7.6 times a day and men only 5.9 times. Women sanitized their hands on average 3.4 times a day and men 3.2 times.

Lydia Buchtmann, Food Safety Information Council communication director, said that handwashing plays an important role in reducing rates of food poisoning and other infectious diseases.

“As with last year, families with children were more likely to wash their hands and use sanitizer than those without children. People over 50 were less likely to use sanitizer, possibly because they were less likely to go out and about as others during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no correlation between respondents’ vaccination status and levels of hand washing or sanitizing,” she said.

The Food Safety Information Council has an education package including videos and posters for adults and children that gives tips for handwashing correctly.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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