Coronavirus: Government could overrule scientific advisers and relax two-metre distancing rule, Chancellor says

Tory MPs fear the safety rule is hurting businesses

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 14 June 2020 11:32
Government could overrule scientific advisors and relax two-metre distancing rule, Chancellor says

The government could overrule its scientific and medical advisers and relax the two-metre coronavirus social distancing rule, the chancellor has said.

Asked on Sunday whether the chief scientist and chief medical officer would have to agree with a relaxation of the policy, Rishi Sunak said ministers were ultimately "elected to make decisions" and suggested they were not bound by the views of experts.

Boris Johnson this weekend commissioned a review into the policy, which has been increasingly criticised by Conservative MPs like Iain Duncan Smith and Damian Green, who say an abundance of caution is hurting businesses. Business lobby groups have also called for the rule to be relaxed.

"I think Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance throughout all of this have provided advice to ministers and ultimately it's for ministers, whether it's me, the prime minister, health secretary, and others, we are the people who are elected to make decisions in this country," Mr Sunak told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.

"People should hold us responsible and accountable for making those decisions, but I think people are comforted and have confidence in those decisions if they know that we are taking advice from our scientists in what is ultimately a health crisis, informed a lot by what is happening with regard to the spread of viruses...

"Whether they're scientific or others, advisors advise ministers, who are elected to make decisions and people can hold us accountable for those, ultimately."

The statement by Mr Sunak is a change in messaging for the government, which has consistently claimed to be "following the science" in its policy throughout the crisis. The UK has suffered one of the planet's worst death tolls from the disease, behind only the United States and Brazil in total killed.

Some scientists have suggested delays in introducing lockdown measures by Mr Johnson's government led to the significantly worse situation in Britain compared to other European countries, most of which are now returning to normal and reopening pubs, bars, cafes, and restaurants.

Limitations and deficiencies in the government's test and trace regime, which was downgraded early on in the crisis while other countries built their capacity, are also thought to explain some of the differences.

The prime minister's review of the two metre rule is expected to be completed by 4 July, the earliest date pubs and restaurants are expected be allowed to open in England. These businesses fear being hit hardest by the change as fewer people would be able to fit in a single establishment, reducing profitability.

Speaking separately on Sky News Mr Sunak said: “The Prime Minister has put in place a comprehensive review of the two metre rule. That review will involve the scientists, economists and others so that we can look at it in the round.

"You are right to highlight the impact it has on business; I know that of course it’s the difference between three-quarters and maybe a third of pubs opening, for example, so it’s important that we look at it. Now that we have made good progress in suppressing the virus, we’re at a different stage of this epidemic than we were at the beginning and that enables us to take a fresh look at this.”

Labour's shadow justice secretary David Lammy said the government should follow the science.

"I don't think it's binary. I think the first thing is science: what does the science say, follow the science. The second thing is be frank and honest with the public in balancing risk as you make that determination. I think the government's been slow: slow on testing, slow on lockdown, slow on PPE, and I think they'll be slow on this," he told the BBC.

"They've said they're having a review, I don't know the science I think we will want to see the science. We would support the government on relaxing the rules, of course, as long as it's the right time to do it. None of us want to be in this state of lockdown and paralysis forever and indeed our economy at some point to open up again, all of us recognise that."

He went on: “Many other countries around the world use a different rule and indeed, we’ve seen a couple of countries recently – I think Norway and Denmark – have moved from two metres to something less as well but it’s important that we look at it comprehensively in the round and that’s what we will do urgently… I can very much understand the impact, the positive impact it will have on business’s ability to reopen and thereby maintain the jobs that they have.”

Some countries have less strict rules than two metres, though many also have other tougher conditions than the UK such as stricter requirements to wear face coverings.

A snap poll by YouGov this week found that 58 per cent of people want the two-metre rule to be kept at the current distance, with 24 per cent agreeing it should be dropped to one metre.

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