LONDON: The two-metre social distancing rule in England looks likely to be relaxed after Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the Prime Minister’s review “will make an enormous difference” to businesses.
Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement next week on pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels — with their reopening in England an ambition from July 4 to start reviving the economy.
He is under pressure from leaders of the hospitality sector and his own MPs to lessen the two-metre rule, which aims to slow the spread of Covid-19 but places major constraints on businesses.
The result of the PM’s review is expected this week but the Chancellor strongly signalled it will allow the government to ease the measure in England.
“The outcome of that review will be announced this week. Obviously that’s something that will make an enormous difference I think to many businesses who are keen to see a change,” he told reporters during a visit to shops in North Yorkshire.
“Obviously we need to go through that review but I’m very understanding of the calls for action on that, particularly for our hospitality industry, for our pubs, for our restaurants, (they) are keen to see if there’s some change that can be made there.”
With the coroanvirus alert level having been reduced from four to three on Friday, plans to allow the hospitality sector to reopen were beginning to emerge. Guidance drawn up by the sector and ministers is understood to encourage pub goers to order drinks using phone apps instead of going to the bar, while current legislation was said to include the powers for patrols.
The UK Hospitality trade body said draft guidance allowed a “degree of flexibility” over menus being discarded after every use and for cutlery only to be brought out with food.
Chief executive Kate Nicholls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the idea was for individual businesses to draw up their own plans to keep their team and guests safe. “As the guidelines cover from a burger van in a park right the way through to the Fat Duck in Bray you need to have something that takes account of everything in between rather than a one-size-fits-all,” she added.
It was stressed that decisions on further easing were yet to be made, but the PM has said the lowering of the alert level from four to three allows ministers to “start making some progress” on social-distancing measures.
And he promised new guidance for the hospitality sector and businesses “very shortly”. One expert informing the government’s response to the pandemic as part of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) said he had revised his opposition to reducing the two-metre rule now transmission is low.
The University of Liverpool’s Professor Calum Semple told Today: “I’m still saying two metres is safer than one but in my opinion it is now a reasonable political decision to relax these rules.”
He said he could “envisage going down to one metre with various caveats and other precautions” in order to reopen society. The downgrading of the alert level by the UK’s chief medical officers, including Professor Chris Whitty, means transmission of coronavirus is no longer considered to be “high or rising exponentially”.
Localised outbreaks of Covid-19 are still “likely” to occur, the advisers warned, and the virus remains in general circulation. The move was welcomed by Portugal’s ambassador to London who said the nation would like to form a so-called air bridge with the UK to give an exemption to quarantine measures to make foreign holidays possible.
Manuel Lobo Antunes told Today: “We think that the situation is under control and we would be happy to receive, as before, as many British as possible.” On Friday, Johnson told the public to “watch this space” when asked whether the distance restriction could be reduced to help schools in England return in autumn.
Government scientific advisers have said they would be comfortable with a reduced distance if risk-mitigating measures were taken, such as people sitting side by side and wearing face coverings. The PM also said it is his intention that children of all ages in England should be able to return to school on a five-days-a-week basis in September.
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