The review of England’s 2-metre physical-distancing rule will conclude in the coming days, the culture secretary has said, as the government comes under increasing pressure from MPs and the hospitality industry to ease the restriction.
Oliver Dowden told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions the review would be “concluding shortly”, and Whitehall officials have confirmed the outcome is expected next week.
Speaking on a visit to shops in Yorkshire, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, strongly signalled it would allow the government to ease the measure in England.
He said: “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.
“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.”
Industry leaders say many businesses will not survive if the 2-metre distancing rule is maintained. Research from the British Beer & Pub Association suggests only a third of England’s pubs could reopen, and many other food and drink establishmentssay they will not be able to make a profit.
Boris Johnson has promised new guidance for the hospitality sector and businesses “very shortly” and told the public on Friday to “watch this space” when asked whether the distance restriction could be reduced to help schools in England return in autumn.
The prime minister has also been under significant pressure from Conservative MPs to reduce the distance, and on Friday night the former business secretary Greg Clark said evidence from other countries showed that lower physical distancing had worked.
Iain Duncan Smith told BBC Breakfast on Saturday morning: “If we don’t get the economy moving now, which is why the two to one metre is so critical, then we will see companies simply calling it a day and putting people on to unemployment.”
The government’s scientific advisers have said they would be comfortable with a reduced distance if extra measures were taken, such as people sitting side by side and wearing face coverings.
The University of Liverpool’s Prof Calum Semple, a member of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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 that in areas where it was difficult to maintain 2-metre distancing, “going down to one metre with various caveats and other precautions” would allow society to get going.
He said his stance on the issue has changed as a result of the “sustained low levels of transmission throughout the country”, which led the government to lower the Covid-19 alert level from four to three earlier this week.
Leaked plans for how the hospitality sector could reopen, seen by the Times, show beer gardens may be patrolled to ensure physical distancing, restaurant tables will not be set in advance and hotel room service will be left outside the door.
Customers will be encouraged to use apps to order drinks, and all restaurants, cafes and pubs will get fast-tracked approval to set up outdoor seating, according to the plans drawn up by the sector and ministers.
Pubs and restaurants will not be able to open before 4 July, when the government aims to implement the next phase in easing restrictions.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the UK Hospitality trade body, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was vital individual businesses were able to draw up their plans.
“As the guidelines cover everything 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 everything in between rather than a one size fits all,” she said.