Coronavirus: Two-metre rule may not be reviewed in time for 4 July pubs reopening date, No 10 says

Review to be conducted by top Downing Street civil servant, with final decision taken by committee chaired by PM

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 15 June 2020 14:18
Comments
Coronavirus in numbers

A review of the two-metre social distancing rule may not be completed in time for the 4 July date for the proposed reopening of pubs and restaurants, Downing Street has indicated.

The announcement sparked warnings from MPs that businesses could have to wait as long as six weeks for certainty on their new rules of operation, forcing many to delay opening, cut jobs or even shut down.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman confirmed that the review will be conducted by Number 10 permanent secretary Simon Case and will receive advice from scientists and medics, but the final decision on any change will be a political decision for the Covid strategy committee chaired by the prime minister.

The spokesman said that the aim was to complete the review "in the coming weeks", but could not offer a guarantee that its recommendations will be available by the date set out for the possible reopening of the hospitality industry in the government's coronavirus recovery plan.

The hospitality sector is pushing hard for a reduction in the two-metre distancing rule, which they believe will make many pubs, bars and restaurants unviable. Representatives of the trade have suggested that a move to one-metre distancing would allow many outlets to break even. Sticking to two metres will also hit the economic viability of others due to reopen on 4 July at the earliest, such as cinemas and hairdressers.

A change is understood to be backed by a significant number of cabinet ministers, but scientific advisers have warned that moving to one or one and a half metres - in line with many other countries - would increase the risk of spreading the disease.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has led parliamentary demands for relaxation of the rule, said businesses might now have to wait until August for certainty.

He told an emergency debate in the House of Commons: "This is significantly the most important strategic decision the government is going to have to make as it unlocks the economy.

"This will have a major effect on the ability of people to manage their lives. This is not just economic. It could be six weeks before we actually discover the outcome of the review, when I don't believe a single fact is going to change in that six weeks. The reality is the advisers are all divided. The government has got to make a decision and get this one right."

Tory Sir John Redwood tol MPs: “Given that the scientific advice is mixed and muddled and given that the economic and business advice is overwhelming and clear, why don’t ministers today announce the halving of the distance, ask business to put in other measures including protective clothing and screens where appropriate, because if we want our hospitality industry to survive in any form, they need to know today so that they can prepare their routes and their tables and their screens and all the rest of it.

"Leaving it until July 4 means many more lost jobs.”

Mr Johnson’s spokesman did not rule out the possibility that pubs and restaurants may have to reopen under the two-metre rule before switching later as guidance develops.

He said no changes would be made unless they met the government’s five tests for lifting lockdown restrictions, including falls in deaths and infections, adequate supplies of tests and protective equipment and avoiding a second spike of the disease.

Further assessment of the tests will be made before the 4 July reopening date is finally confirmed.

The spokesman said: “The road map sets out 4 July as a possible date for reopening.

“We are aware of the significance of that date and understand the hospitality industry will want to get going as soon as it can.

“But it is also important that any steps we take are safe and we need to make sure we are continuing to meet the five tests.”

The review will look at evidence around "transmission of the virus in different environments, incidence rates and international comparisons”, Mr Johnson's spokesman told a Westminster briefing.

“It will draw on advice from scientific and medical experts as well as economists and papers from Sage (the PM's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies).

“It will take advice from a range of experts including the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.”

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UK Hospitality, told the BBC: “We very much welcome the Government’s decision to conduct a review on this because it is a matter of survival or business failure as far as hospitality is concerned.

“If businesses are opening at two-metre social distance, then they’re operating at 30% of their normal revenues and for a quarter of our small hospitality businesses they won’t be able to open at all.

“If they open at one metre with additional protections to make sure staff and customers are safe, then they can reach 60% to 70% of their normal revenues, and that puts them at break-even.

“So, for many of those businesses it is literally about viability and we know that a third of businesses may not reopen as a result of prolonged closure, and that puts a million jobs at risk across the hospitality sector.”

The body representing firms in the heart of London’s shopping district around Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street also called for the limit to be reduced.

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive at New West End Company, told the PA news agency the two-metre rule is “sub-economic”.

He said the West End – which normally turns over £10 billion a year – is expecting losses to exceed £5 billion this year, and warned that up to 50,000 jobs could be at risk.

“We absolutely have to review this,” he said, acknowledging that safety should remain a “number one” priority.

Mr Tyrrell called for the UK to be on a level playing field with Europe, and said if there is an effective track and trace system and other hygiene measures, then there needs to be a move away from social distancing.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has led calls on the Conservative benches for the limit to be reduced, claiming it “hamstrings us in a whole series of areas”.

Ex-Cabinet minister John Redwood has also said there is a “good case” for the distance to be cut and the “economic impact of the reduction would be most helpful to hospitality and travel businesses”.

The World Health Organisation's director for Europe Hans Kluge warned the UK against rushing to lift lockdown restrictions.

“We know that the situation in the UK is still being taken very seriously,” Dr Kluge told The Guardian. “But we also know that it is a balance between three factors: population health, economic and social, and the third is the wellbeing of the people.

"So whatever the country decides: be ready. It is not over. And whatever decision you make, please make sure it is based on public health and epidemiological observations.”

He added: "The key words here are to do it gradually. Do it carefully.

“Contact tracing is key especially as the UK starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures. There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation."

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