British Broadcasting Corp. staff will wear electronic devices to enforce social distancing in a sign of how workplaces are scurrying to contain a new, more-infectious variant of the coronavirus.

The U.K.’s state-backed media company has required those in key production and broadcasting roles to continue coming into offices. In memos sent Thursday and seen by Bloomberg, the BBC said measures to keep people safe will include wearable alarms. A BBC spokesman confirmed the memos.

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“Social distancing proximity devices will be rolled out in key BBC locations to help maintain safe social distancing,” according to one of the memos. “Anyone coming into those offices will be asked to wear the devices, which will alert wearers when they’re less than two metres apart from someone else.”

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The gadget, which resembles a pager, will buzz if the wearer gets too close to someone else and doesn’t record any personal data, according to the memos. The measures will be introduced in the coming weeks, they said.


The BBC spokesman didn’t have details of the device’s provider, and said it doesn’t connect to WiFi. The decision was reported earlier by the Daily Mail.

“Not everyone can work remotely, so it is important that workers have the tools to keep them safe without employers overstepping the mark on data use and privacy,” said Andrew Pakes, a spokesman for Prospect, the union that represents BBC staff through its Bectu division.

The BBC is also introducing weekly or twice-weekly lateral flow coronavirus tests for employees who visit the office regularly, according to the memos. They reiterate guidance around social distancing, rules around wearing face-masks in communal areas, and information about support for staff.

The U.K.’s surge in Covid-19 cases over the last month is driven by a mutation of the virus, which scientists estimate is as much as 70% more infectious. Roughly one in fifty people in England currently has the disease, according to government estimates.

The BBC’s system should be scrutinized by Britain’s data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to see if it complies with data protection laws, said Ella Jakubowska, a policy and campaigns officer at the European Digital Rights advocacy group.

Personnel at physics laboratory CERN, which sits on the French-Swiss border, will also wear proximity-detecting devices, but their system will collect and hold encrypted data for two weeks, the facility said in a statement last month. The “Proximeter” technology is more accurate than mobile phone-based detection, it said.

(Updates with union comment and context from sixth paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected the source of the previous report.)

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