Two-metre distancing rule to remain in place as Boris Johnson fails to publish results of scientific review

Boris Johnson fails to publish promised review of rule 'in good time' before non-essential stores open doors on Monday

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 09 June 2020 18:05
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Coronavirus: Alok Sharma says two-metre rule will remain in place

Rules requiring customers in shops, pubs and restaurants to remain two metres apart from one another are to remain in place, as Boris Johnson breached a commitment to publish the results of a scientific review into the issue.

The hospitality industry has been lobbying ministers hard to relax the rule, and one representative of bars and restaurants around the country today said that its retention will render almost every business in the sector “completely unviable”.

The prime minister promised to publish the findings of a review by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) “in good time” for the planned reopening of non-essential retailers on 15 June.

Many other countries limit social distancing to one or one and a half metres, while the World Health Organisation recommends one metre.

But when business secretary Alok Sharma confirmed that shops in England will be able to reopen their doors from next Monday – with pubs and restaurants waiting until 4 July at the earliest – he said only that the two-metre social distancing would be “kept under review”.

Mr Sharma is understood to be among a group of ministers nicknamed the “Save Summer Six”, arguing at cabinet on Tuesday for a relaxation in the measure to protect up to 3.5 million jobs at risk if pubs and restaurants are unable to use even their outdoor areas during the crucial warm months.

But he left no doubt at the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing that this argument had been overruled, saying: “The two metre rule stays in place at the moment, but as the prime minister has made clear, we keep all these things under review.”

A spokesperson for trade body UKHospitality responded: “Opening with a two-metre social distancing rule would see many venues operating at around 30 per cent capacity, which would be completely unviable for almost every business.

“Reducing the distance to one metre would allow businesses to operate at around 70 per cent capacity, which might allow them to at least break even.

“If the science shows that one-metre social distancing is safe, then reducing the required distance would be a great bonus for many businesses and significantly safeguard jobs.”

Mr Sharma told today’s briefing that he was hearing pleas from business “on a daily basis” for a cut and said he “completely understands” the commercial rationale for the change.

But he added: “We will keep this under review and it will only change when it is safe to do so.”

Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee on 27 May, Mr Johnson was challenged to make a commitment to publish a Sage review of the two-metre rule “in good time” before the reopening of shops.

He responded: “I can not only make that commitment – I can tell you that I have already done just that, so I hope we will make progress.”

Alok Sharma during a media briefing in Downing Street

The PM added then: “My own hope – this is where I hope we can get – is that, as we make progress in getting the virus down and in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance, which I think would be particularly valuable on transport and clearly in the hospitality sector.”

But it is understood that the government’s scientific and medical advisers have remained strongly opposed to a reduction in the two-metre limit, making relaxation impossible.

Sarah Albon, the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive, told the Downing Street briefing: “The science is very clear that where somebody has a Covid infection, the chances of them passing that on at two metres’ distance from other people is significantly less than one and a half or one metre.”

Ms Albon said a “complicated” assessment by scientists of the chances of the infection being spread would be required before they can give advice “about the time when it’s safe to make a shift”.

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