There has been a decline in consumer handwashing from mid-2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, based on results from a Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey.

Between April 2020 and January 2022, the proportion who reported handwashing with soap and warm water “always” or “most of the time” declined from 79 percent to 68 percent. Public health officials say handwashing is one of the best ways to avoid food poisoning.

At the start, more than a third of respondents washed their hands for between 20 and 24 seconds but by the end, only 27 percent did. Some people washed their hands for less than 10 seconds while others said they did it for one minute or more or didn’t know how long. 

Poor hygiene can contribute to foodborne diseases, such as E. coli and norovirus, whilst good hand hygiene can reduce the risks of cross contamination.

The quarterly handwashing tracker was done by Ipsos UK. In each survey, Ipsos surveyed 2,000 adults aged 16 to 75 living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Findings indicate that some handwashing behaviors established during the COVID-19 pandemic have declined, said FSA.

There was a significant decrease in participants who reported “always” washing their hands before cooking or preparing food, before eating, after handling rubbish and when arriving home or after a trip out.

Outside the home and personal hygiene
There was also a drop in people who said they “always” washed their hands when eating a picnic or when consuming a takeaway outside the house. The proportion of participants who reported “always” washing hands before eating in a restaurant and before eating snacks with their hands stayed around 40 percent and 30 percent respectively.

Takeaways were most likely to have handwashing facilities unavailable “most of the time”, or “always”. But they were often also unavailable or unusable in cafes and restaurants, pubs and clubs, at sport and music events and at cinemas and theaters.

In April 2020, 51 percent of participants reported having sore hands because of handwashing. However, most people who experienced this said it made no difference to how frequently they washed their hands.

Reported handwashing after contact with animals, including pets, remained broadly stable. Such handwashing habits were likely ingrained and not influenced by the pandemic, which explains why they remained consistent over time, said the report.

The proportion of participants who reported “always” washing their hands after using the toilet declined over time. In April 2020, 87 percent “always” washed hands but this decreased to 80 percent in January 2022.

The number of people carrying and using hand sanitizing gel as a handwashing alternative also fell over the period based on different scenarios.

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