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Coronavirus: Gamble for Boris Johnson as he announces risky relaxation of lockdown restrictions

Cinemas, museums and galleries to join pubs and restaurants in 4 July reopening, while two-metre distancing rule expected to be reduced

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 23 June 2020 14:04 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Boris Johnson will on Tuesday announce the biggest and riskiest step so far to take England out of lockdown, as he confirms that pubs, restaurants and hotels can start reopening in 11 days’ time on 4 July.

And the prime minister is expected to confirm that a review of social distancing has concluded that the two-metre rule in place since March can be reduced to one metre – something which is regarded as essential by the hospitality industry for venues to be financially viable.

The announcement comes amid continuing disagreement among scientists about the safety of lifting lockdown measures, with the Independent Sage group – led by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King –warning that the rate of infection is still “far too high” to go ahead.

Meanwhile, in a boost to England’s economically important cultural sector, Mr Johnson will say that cinemas, museums and galleries can also open their doors from the first Saturday in July.

A return for cultural venues will be conditional on making them Covid-secure, which could mean one-way systems, spaced queuing, increased ventilation and pre-booked tickets for displays and shows.

The Tourism Alliance said that the inclusion of hotels and other tourist facilities in the 4 July reopening was vital to an industry which has already lost an estimated £40bn this year, while UK Hospitality said that the reduction of the two-metre rule will be “make or break” for many businesses.

In an attempt to ensure that the reopening of leisure facilities after more than three months does not lead to a spike in the disease, ministers are likely to insist on measures to minimise risks and allow the rapid identification of new clusters of infections.

They are intensely aware of the experience of Germany, where the relaxation of controls has been followed by a surge in the rate of reproduction of the disease – known as R – from the level of one, below which it is no longer growing exponentially, to 2.88 in recent days. Although the German uptick is thought to be linked to meat-processing plants, where cold temperatures may help the virus survive, ministers acknowledge that relaxing restrictions in the UK carries with it the risk of renewed spread.

Mr Johnson will make clear in a statement to parliament that the public must continue to follow social-distancing guidelines to keep the coronavirus under control and that any easing of restrictions could be reversed if the virus risks running out of control.

The two-metre rule is expected to be revised to “one metre plus”, so that people will have to remain at the existing minimum distance unless they have taken mitigation measures such as wearing face coverings.

Guidance for pubs and restaurants is expected to feature the installation of plastic screens between tables and a New Zealand-style “guest register” to record all visitors so they can be contacted in case of an outbreak linked to the venue.

Mr Johnson and senior ministers agreed the new moves at a meeting of the government’s Covid Strategy Committee on Monday evening, where they were briefed by experts including chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on the outcome of the social-distancing review and the balance of risks associated with reopening society at this stage. The easing of lockdown will be approved by full cabinet on Tuesday morning before being outlined to MPs by the prime minister in a statement to the Commons.

The development comes after the official death toll from Covid-19 fell to its lowest daily total since early March on Monday, with just 15 fatalities recorded bringing the total to 42,647. Numbers of new positive tests also fell below 1,000 – to 958.

Meanwhile, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that advice for clinically extremely vulnerable people to “shield” themselves by staying at home will be lifted from 1 August, with new freedoms for those affected to meet others outdoors or form “support bubbles” with another household from 6 July.

Mr Hancock told the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing it was now estimated that just one person in 1,700 now has the disease, compared to one in 400 a month ago, enabling Mr Johnson to move ahead with the easing of lockdown.

“All these figures are coming down and pointing in the right direction. It shows that while there is still much to do, we are clearly making progress,” said the health secretary.

And Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, said the consensus among members of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was that the R number remains below one.

“The advice that is given is already coming from a consensus of scientists,” she told the briefing. “They give that advice and the politicians act on that advice. The consensus as of last week was that our R remains between 0.7 and 0.9.”

Kate Nicholls, UK Hospitality chief executive, said it was vital for the recovery of the sector that the prime minister confirms the move away from two-metre distancing.

“Sticking to the two-metre rule will mean that most venues will be restricted to about 30 per cent capacity, whereas a reduction to one metre would allow most to trade at about 70 per cent capacity,” she said

“That could be make or break for a business. If the science says it is safe to reduce the distance, then the government should do it. It will help keep businesses alive and save jobs.

“We also need confirmation of the opening date now. If it is to be 4 July as we suspect, venues need to start planning their opening right now, if they have not already done so. Businesses need as much time as possible to get themselves ready and we are less than two weeks from the assumed date. We need clarity on this and the two-metre rule to make the reopening as smooth as possible.”

Kurt Janson, director of the Tourism Alliance trade body, told The Independent: “The main thing that we need from the government’s announcement is clarity. Clarity on when different tourism and hospitality businesses will be able to open, the social-distancing rules that they will need to comply with and the procedures they need to implement to make sure their premises are Covid-safe for both staff and customers.

“Without this information, it is impossible for businesses to plan properly.

“The Tourism Alliance has calculated that the UK tourism industry has already lost over £40bn in revenue this year. Unless businesses are able to open soon and operate in a financially viable way, then the economic impact on many businesses and destinations that depend on tourism will be severe.”

Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, warned that cutting the social-distancing minimum will send out the wrong signals to the public.

“It is too soon to reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre,” said Prof Reicher. “The proposed reduction will have behavioural consequences and, in effect, dump the concept of distancing altogether. It sends a ‘back to normal’ signal when we are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

“We need to remain more on guard than ever.”

A No 10 source said: “We are only able to move forward this week because the vast majority of people have taken steps to control the virus.

“But the more we open up, the more important it is that everyone follows the social-distancing guidelines. We will not hesitate to reverse these steps if it is necessary to stop the virus running out of control.”

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