As the world wrestles with coronavirus (COVID-19), a more mundane subtext has entered our daily lives. How do we greet each other? How do we part when our time together is over?

Specifically, the handshake, one of the most common gestures used by the humans when they meet, that has existed in some form or another for thousands of years, is under threat. At the time of writing, the UK Government has yet officially to advise against shaking hands, rather emphasising the importance of washing them frequently and thoroughly.

But, out on the streets, in offices, restaurants and other places where people mingle, the familiar offer of an outstretched hand is being abandoned. The reason? Handshaking, skin on skin, can spread bacteria and viruses. And in the current febrile environment, this is deemed to be unacceptably risky behaviour.

Partly because our hands touch a multitude of surfaces every day, partly because germs can exist on desks, keyboards, screens and doorknobs for between 48 and 72 hours, significantly because of the general level of paw hygiene (ahem!), our hands are indeed highly effective bug carriers. Nicky Milner, director of medical education at Anglia Ruskin University, has estimated that on a typical human hand there can be found 3,200 bacteria from 150 species, including faecal matter. Yuk!

To emphasise the point, research has also shown that you can spread more germs by shaking someone’s hand than by kissing them. Don’t tell Donald Trump!

In truth, there have been handshake avoiders for some time. These concerns are not new, just supercharged by the current global anxiety. American poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes proposed, in 1843, that a common and deadly childbirth fever was caused by germs delivered from the hands of doctors and nurses. By the early 1900s, the health risks of the handshake were reported in medical literature.

In recent times, a preference for the high five, transferring around half the bacteria of a handshake, has evidenced the search for a personal but less germy exchange. More important has been the arrival of the fist bump, a knuckle to knuckle encounter with much less flesh action. Researchers from Aberystwyth University have found that a handshake can pass on 10 times more bacteria than a fist bump.

Result, surely? While somewhat blokey in style, fist bumps, with their brief, bony contact, must be the way to go in maintaining a palpable connection while not sharing untold nasties (combined with aggravated handwashing, of course)? Well, not quite.

Enter elbow bumping, skin-free, fabric-to-fabric body touching that further and significantly reduces the transmission of infectious diseases between individuals. Recognising the relative remoteness of a nod, smile or wave, this is now the physical salutation du jour. In my view, however, it is also where it all starts to go wrong.

The sight of everyone from political leaders to friends down the pub pointing their elbows at each other is just too much. The nervous, embarrassed approach. The sheer ugliness of the ritual. Is it tip to tip, can it be elbow to forearm, or upper arm, what about elbow to chest?

And then there is the ill-conceived radicalism that such a break with traditional handshaking has caused. I have been greeted this week by what I believe is called a ‘footshake’, aka the “Wuhan shake”. As the term suggests, the two participants each raise a leg, ideally the same one, and tap feet in a reciprocal motion. This is fine if you know it’s coming. I didn’t and therefore wondered why I had been kicked in the shins for no apparent reason.

No, this cannot be allowed to take hold. While the coronavirus rages, fine, but when it’s gone, the trusty handshake must return. Enough of this freakish improv.

And let us remind ourselves that, while there are many other meaningful and magnificent greeting customs around the world, the handshake (also known as dexiosis) can be traced back to a funeral stone from the fifth century B.C., on display in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, showing two Greek soldiers shaking hands.

As an act it was believed to have been a symbol of peace, to show that neither man (back in the day) was carrying a weapon in his right hand. To this theme, some historians have suggested that the shaking gesture was later adopted by knights in the Middle Ages, before gaffer tape, as a means of proving that knives were not being concealed up the other person’s sleeve.

And by the 1800s, etiquette manuals often included guidelines for the proper handshaking technique. The Victorian shake was supposed to be firm but not overly strong.

In any regard, handshaking has history and social resonance. Future records will surely not feature prominent men and women marching towards each other with their elbows cocked, as if brandishing small wooden swords from the drama cupboard.

I sincerely hope that we don’t throw the handshake out with the coronavirus. When the planet bounces back, so let the habit of shaking hands. It is a deeply entrenched tradition, a sign of respect and appreciation. In most situations, it’s quick, neat, expressive, easy, uncontroversial. It’s part of who we are and how we communicate.

Restraint certainly makes sense over the next few months, but the real learning here relates to hygiene. A return to handshaking must be accompanied by a massive improvement in how we care for two of the most valuable, flexible, sophisticated tools we possess.

Now, wash your hands!