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.
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.
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 Times said it had been leaked the guidance and reported:
– Limits on the number of punters allowed into pubs, where tables would be spaced out and glasses would be collected from tables, while bar tops and door handles would be cleaned at least hourly.
– Restaurants would be required to place strict limits on the number of diners and would be encouraged to stagger reservations.
– Hotel room service would see staff leave trays outside guests’ doors and if they fall ill the customer would be asked to self-isolate in their room, which would be cordoned off for 72 hours after their recovery.
– Gyms and swimming pools would require receptionists use clickers to count numbers going in and booking systems would be put in place to prevent overcrowding.
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.
In other developments:
– Health Secretary Matt Hancock welcomed “hugely positive progress” in the coronavirus fight after Northern Ireland announced there had been no new confirmed cases for the first time since the lockdown was imposed.
– The Government is expected to make an announcement on the next phase of its coronavirus border controls next week after imposing a 14-day quarantine on all new entrants.
– Spain said it would “freely” welcome Britons without the need to quarantine there from Sunday, in a call for the UK to reciprocate and form a so-called air bridge.
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.
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.
Plans to further ease the lockdown emerged as the Department of Health and Social Care announced an extra 128 deaths of people who have tested positive for Covid-19.
The total number of deaths involving coronavirus in the UK is thought to have passed 53,000.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford was planning to end its five-mile restriction on travel next month and allow holidaymakers to return a week later.
And in Northern Ireland, most pupils are set for a return to education in the autumn after ministers agreed to cut the social distancing measure to one metre.