Boris Johnson has indicated that the two-metre social distancing rule could be reduced if infection rates continue to fall in the community, even if transmission in care homes and hospitals keeps the crucial R figure high.
The prime minister is coming under intense pressure to cut the minimum distance for social contacts to 1.5 or one metre, with pubs and restaurants warning that the existing rule will make it unviable for them to reopen.
But there are concerns that the so-called R rate – which measures the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – is remaining stubbornly close to the 1 figure above which scientists warn it will not be safe to ease lockdown.
Mr Johnson said that as much as 80 per cent of the epidemic is now taking place in health and care settings, and suggested that it might be safe to ease the two-metre rule elsewhere.
Asked if will be impossible to relax the restriction so long as R remains close to one, the PM replied: “There are three epidemics – in care homes, in the NHS and in the communtiy. At the moment, the vast proportion – probably 80 per cent – of the infection or the epidemic is in care homes or the NHS.
“There are complex issues about the risk the whole of the community faces with the R.
“So the R can be slightly below or close to one, but the crucial thing is the overall rate of infections we are seeing, the overall rate of infections in the country and in the community, the rates of new hospital admissions are very important. That’s how we will make the judgement.”
Official figures released by the government today showed the R rate is currently between 0.8 and 1 across England as a whole, but has potentially crept above 1 in the southwest, where the level is estimated at 0.8-1.1.
Once the figure rises above one, a country or region risks exponential growth in the disease because each infected person is passing the illness on to more than one other.
R was 0.8-1 in London, the midlands, the southeast and the northwest, 0.7-1 in Yorkshire and the northeast and 0.7-0.9 in the east of England.
Mr Johnson said that the two-metre rule was being constantly kept under review, and said he was working with scientists to identify the point at which it will be safe to reduce it.
Businesses and Tory MPs have been calling for a move to the one-metre minimum distance recommended by the World Health Organisation and observed in many countries, which many hospitality companies believe could make the difference in allowing their businesses to break even.
The PM said that the two-metre guidance was currently right for the UK’s circumstances, but made clear that he believes that the key to altering it would be the state of the epidemic outside healthcare settings, saying it will happen “once we get the number of infections in the community right, right down”.
“At the moment one in 1,000 or maybe one in 1,600 actually has coronavirus among us,” he said. “That proportion will continue to get smaller and smaller.
“As that happens, the risk to any of us being next to someone – whether two metres or one metre or one centimetre away – who has the virus becomes much, much lower.
“What we are looking for is the moment when we have got the numbers down – I won’t give you the figure, but we are working with the scientists to work out a figure – so far that we can really say that the two-metre rule is no longer necessary.
“We are keeping it under review, and obviously as we make further progress I hope to say more, but I must stress the way for us all to get there is for us to continue to drive down the virus. You know how to do it – wash your hands, isolate if you have to and get a test.”
According to The Daily Telegraph, the government has begun discreetly contacting business groups to ask whether they would object to the two-metre rule being watered down.
But in documents published on Friday, scientific advisers to the government warned that people should "continue to observe a distance of two metres when face to face and avoid prolonged exposure to other people".
In a paper submitted to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the Environmental and Modelling Group added that safety measures including masks and efforts to minimise duration of exposure were required when distancing was not possible.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing, NHS England medical director Stephen Powis indicated that measures other than the national R rate were being taken into account when judging whether lockdown rules can be relaxed.
Prof Powis said: “R, of course, is a very important way of looking at this, but there are other things that we look at.
“The Office for National Statistics has published again today the results from their surveillance study where they randomly sample individuals in the population to directly look for how many people are testing positive for this virus. That study has shown that over the last month or so, or last few weeks, we’ve seen a steady reduction in their projection of the number of infections in the community.
“That evidence also suggests that the R value is below one because it’s only when the R value is below one that we would see that decrease in the number of infections. So, R is really important, but there are other ways of measuring how how frequent the virus is in the population.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies