PM Boris Johnson has ordered a forthcoming review of the Covid-19 two-metre rule for social distancing amid calls for it be scrapped, the result of the UK making ‘good progress’ in restricting the coronavirus.
Mr Johnson effectively prepares the ground for the abolition of the two-metre separation rule by taking personal control of the decision to axe it. His critical intervention comes as one of the country’s leading restaurateurs, Richard Caring, warns that the hospitality sector will be hit by millions of job losses, unless it is scrapped.
The review will enable control of Covid-19 social distancing guidance to be taken from government scientists and, more importantly, allow the dire economic impact of the measure to be taken into account for the first time.
Announcing the review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said relaxing the current restriction is crucial if businesses such as pubs and restaurants are to be able to reopen sustainably. The World Health Organisation (WHO) currently recommends maintaining a distance of a minimum of one metre.
Mr Sunak told the Conservative party’s 1922 backbench Committee last week that three-quarters of pubs could open if the distance was cut to one metre. But, he was keen to point out, it will be ministers who will make the final decision on whether to relax the current rule rather than the Government’s scientific advisers.
Ministers urged to scrap 2-metre rule in pubs
He also emphasized that health and safety was still the number one priority, although he well understood the concerns of the business sector not being able to operate under current social distancing rules.
Some experts, such as the Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, have already expressed their reluctance to see any relaxation of the rule while the Covid-19 pandemic continues.
Mr Sunak said now that we have made good progress in curbing the virus, we’re at a different stage of the pandemic and can afford to review social distancing rules.
He appreciated the importance of reducing the rule in advance of non-essential businesses reopening their doors today for the first time in three months. He added that he understood completely the positive impact the relaxation will have on firms’ ability to open.
In doing so, business owners will be able to maintain jobs for their staff and ensure that all their employees can return to their jobs. Although he added the proviso that it must be ‘safe to do so’ while the virus continues to move through the country.
Organisations such as the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) have urged ministers to put in place a one-metre distance rule, adding that just one third of the UK’s pubs would be able to reopen later this year, as things stand.
Coronavirus five tests have been met
Retailers have been gearing up to reopen today despite the rules around social distancing remaining unchanged. Mr Sunak explained that it will be safe to go shopping this week as the five tests, the Government’s requirement to support the easing of restrictions, had been met.
The five tests include: ensuring that the NHS can cope with the demand; a fall in daily death rates; reliable data from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) showing the rate of infection decreasing to manageable levels; having sufficient testing capacity and stocks of PPE; and ensuring the reduction in distancing will not result in a second wave of the virus.
Mr Sunak said consumers will encounter a shopping experience similar to supermarkets in the last twelve weeks, in that that there will be one-way systems and sneeze screens between customers and staff. Small shops, he added, will provide a safe environment as they will be bound by Health and Safety rules.
Meanwhile, Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, has confirmed that pubs and hairdressers will not open to customers for at least another month. He also confirmed during one of the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefings last week that shops contravening the rules designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 face being issued with enforcement notices.