The coronavirus pandemic has transformed our lives: changing the way we shop, eat out, and watch our favourite sports. We discuss whether new technologies will help us to adapt.
2020 was an unprecedented year in many ways. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the retail sector was immense: closing shops, restaurants, cafés and other public venues right across the UK for weeks on end and imperilling many businesses. Sadly, 2021 has started just as badly with another national lockdown. Fortunately, to encourage cautious consumers back into the shops after these lockdowns end, retail businesses, including those like supermarkets and pharmacies which remain open, can turn to technology to create a safer environment for staff and customers – technology like thermal imaging systems.
What is thermal imaging technology and how does it work?
Thermal imaging systems consist of infrared heat-sensing cameras, connected to sophisticated software that can monitor people as they approach and enter a building: for example, a shopping centre, restaurant, hotel or football stadium. These have been tailored for the coronavirus pandemic. The Multitone Thermal Imaging Solution, for instance, not only checks a person’s body temperature at the forehead, it also identifies whether they are wearing a mask. This is especially important now as, while face masks have long been required by law inside shops, shops are now actively denying access to customers who are not wearing a mask without a medical reason.
This solution can monitor up to 30 people simultaneously with each camera and is able to issue configurable voice commands. Additionally, by integrating with other Multitone solutions and third-party systems, it can alert staff via smart devices or carry out automations like disabling automatic doors as appropriate. This allows for monitoring of body temperature and mask wearing from a safe distance by security and management personnel, day and night, without any significant inconvenience for customers. It also eliminates the need for staff to stand by entrances all day long, and limits the potential for staff to receive abuse or to be exposed to unnecessary risk by confronting people who are not wearing masks.
As many premises have either multiple entrances or multiple buildings, so the Multitone Thermal Imaging Solution facilitates the networking of multiple cameras so all entrances can be centrally and simultaneously monitored.
How effective are thermal imaging systems?
The purpose of a thermal imaging system is not to directly detect COVID-19 – or any other illness, for that matter. Its job is to screen for abnormally high body temperatures, which the NHS recognises as a common symptom of coronavirus, and of other infectious illnesses. Encouraging people who may be infectious to leave helps limit the risk of transmission on the premises. Whilst these systems are not a substitute for social distancing, mask wearing or other public health and sanitary measures, international studies have shown that when thermal imaging systems are installed correctly and managed in an appropriate way, they can accurately measure someone’s surface skin temperature without being physically close to the person being evaluated.
This finding is significant, because it demonstrates how we can use technology to make shopping centres and other venues safer without labour-intensive or disruptive processes. A thermal imaging system can check temperatures, check for face masks, and ask people to put them on where needed, all without restricting the flow of traffic or exposing staff to unnecessary risk.
Can thermal imaging systems encourage us to start shopping again after lockdown?
Many of us love to shop and to eat out with family and friends. However, the seismic impact of COVID-19 means that, after one of the worst winters in living memory where the pandemic span out of control and hospitals struggled to cope with the influx of seriously ill patients, retailers and other businesses are going to have a challenge in persuading anxious consumers to return to places where the perceived risk of coronavirus infection is high. Investing in a thermal imaging system is one such solution. It will reassure people that their health is being taken seriously and remind people to wear masks where required.
Although the government aims to vaccinate the entire adult population by autumn, thermal imaging systems will continue to be valuable after the COVID-19 pandemic has largely passed, too. Various strains of influenza, which commonly cause fever, will continue to be a problem and we should not forget that these too cost thousands of lives each year.
As for COVID-19 itself, experts have predicted that the disease will not be entirely eliminated in the foreseeable future and could well become a seasonal illness like flu which requires continual vigilance and a regular vaccination program. Current evidence suggests that the vaccines do not prevent coronavirus infection, and may not prevent transmission either. Furthermore, the threat of new pandemics has not diminished. In fact, thanks to globalisation, climate change and ecological degradation, scientists say future pandemics are increasingly likely. By investing in technologies to reduce risk from coronavirus transmission today, businesses are also investing in their futures.