UK prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered a review of the two-metre social distancing rule after backlash from the hospitality industry, with chancellor Rishi Sunak admitting an easing could have a significant impact on the sector’s reopening.
Earlier, government scientists told ministers that halving the two-metre rule could be done if coupled with other measures, such as getting workers to sit side by side.
But some, including chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, had signalled they were reluctant about such a move, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the country continues to rise.
Sunak noted it will be ministers rather than the government’s scientific advisers who make the final decision, and they will consider advice from economists as well as scientific and medical experts.
Ministers are under intense pressure from Conservative MPs, who see the easing of the two-metre rule as crucial to the further reopening of the economy, which shrank a record 20% in April.
Sunak acknowledged the decision will have a major impact on the hospitality sector, with the government stating restaurants and pubs can start opening next month.
In an interview with Sky News, he said: “You are right to highlight the impact it has on business – it is the difference between maybe three-quarters and a third of pubs opening, for example, so it is important the we look at it.
“Obviously many other countries around the world use a different rule. We have seen a couple of countries recently – Norway and Denmark – have moved from two metres to something less as well.
“It is important that we look at it comprehensively, in the round, and that is what we will do urgently.”
The interview comes as all shops in England prepare to open on 15 June for the first time since the lockdown was imposed in March, and amid fears of a new wave of job losses as the government starts to wind down its furlough scheme.
Sunak acknowledged further redundancies were inevitable and said that it underlined the importance of getting the economy going again.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has said the two-metre social distancing rule should only be relaxed if the science backs such a move.
Earlier this month, the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and UK Hospitality said venues such as pubs and restaurants will not be able to make enough money as the two-metre regulation reduces the number of patrons they can host at one time.