Ministers have again indicated their hope to reduce the 2-metre span for physical distancing in England, amid increasing worries from Conservative MPs and others about the damage to the economy, particularly the hospitality sector, if it is not changed.
With industry bodies saying only a third of pubs will be able to reopen with the requisite distance between customers to prevent the spread of coronavirus, government scientific advisers have stressed that the decision is ultimately a political one.
Speaking at Wednesday’s Downing Street briefing, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said the choice of 2 metres was not a rule but “a risk-based assessment on when risk reduces”. He added: “It is wrong to portray this as a scientific rule that says it is 2 metres or nothing.”
Asked about the distance during media interviews on Thursday morning, Simon Clarke, the local government minister, conceded it was “intrinsically a very challenging decision for us to make”.
He told the BBC: “We do need to be confident before we make any such announcement that it is the right thing at the right time. We are at the 2-metre point now. That’s what the best available guidance supports. Obviously, we continue to keep this under active review.
“We all recognise how limiting 2 metres is. We are not blind to the very severe challenges it poses, not just for schools but for the wider economy.”
Clarke’s comments echo Boris Johnson’s remarks at the previous evening’s No 10 briefing. “As we drive this disease down, as we get the incidence down, working together, I want to make sure that we keep that 2-metre rule under constant review,” the prime minister said.
Johnson is under pressure to act rapidly if he can, with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicting that the UK will suffer greater economic damage from coronavirus than any country in the developed world.
The Paris-based organisation said there would be an 11.5% fall in GDP in Britain during 2020, greater than in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the US.
There is particular worry about the wave of joblessness that is expected when the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end, with significant unemployment expected for hospitality workers.
The British Beer and Pub Association has said even when pubs in England are able to open again, only one in three will be able to do so, given the 2-metre rule.
On Wednesday, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, followed a visit to a branch of John Lewis, to promote the reopening of non-essential retail outlets, by indicating strongly to backbench Tory MPs that he wanted the 2-metre rule amended.
Sunak reportedly told the 1922 Committee many more pubs could open if the distancing limit was reduced to 1 metre, noting the number of other countries with lower limits.