Johnson to overrule scientists and press on with lockdown easing

Boris Johnson will on Tuesday reject misgivings from some leading scientists and press ahead with a plan to cut England’s contentious 2-metre social distancing rule, as he adds cinemas, galleries and museums to the list of premises able to reopen on July 4.

Pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers will also be given approval to reopen their doors with coronavirus precautions in place on July 4, to the relief of Conservative MPs who have been urging the prime minister to press ahead with further lockdown easing.

In a sign of increasing efforts to boost the economy amid the Covid-19 crisis, Mr Johnson is hoping to announce in the next few days the lifting of the UK’s 14-day quarantine arrangements for travellers arriving from countries including Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Spain.

The “travel corridors” between the UK and certain European nations would facilitate Eurostar services from Paris and Brussels to London as British officials take account of virus infection rates in other countries.

Customers are served takeaway drinks from the Cat & Mutton pub in Broadway Market, London © Yui Mok/PA

Legislation will be introduced in parliament this week to give cafés and pubs greater ability to set up tables on pavements, although Mr Johnson has dropped plans to relax Sunday trading laws in the face of a threatened revolt by Tory MPs.

The flurry of initiatives came as health secretary Matt Hancock announced that the daily death toll from the virus had risen by just 15, the lowest level since mid-March.

But with the government expected to cut the 2-metre social distancing rule to 1 metre in England — a move that should boost the hospitality industry — some experts believe Mr Johnson is moving too fast.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, said this month that the 2-metre rule was “going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues”.

David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, warned that it was not yet safe to relax social distancing rules indoors.

David King the former chief scientific adviser © Charlie Bibby/FT

Sir David, who has set up an alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, said ministers had sidelined advice from their own body. “That quite clearly says it is soon to reduce the distance from 2 metres to 1 metre,” he added.

Mr Johnson on Monday convened senior ministers and his two top virus advisers — Prof Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance — to finalise the government plan for reopening the hospitality industry and the cultural sector. The prime minister is due to set out details in a House of Commons statement on Tuesday.

Mr Johnson is expected to replace the 2-metre rule with a “1-metre plus” guideline that includes mitigations to reduce the risk of spreading the virus — such as wearing face coverings.

Whitehall officials indicated that private rented accommodation and some hotels would reopen before parts of the tourism industry, such as campsites, that depend heavily on shared facilities.

Mr Johnson is expected to exhort his cabinet on Tuesday to lead a campaign to persuade Britons that it is safe to go back to the pub and to enjoy other aspects of normal life.

“There’s a job to be done to encourage people to go out,” said one government official, suggesting some ministers might take the lead by heading to the pub.

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock announced that 2.2m people in England at highest risk from the virus would no longer be advised to isolate themselves from the rest of the population from August.

He said these people — deemed in March to be the most vulnerable to infection due to pre-existing health conditions — would be allowed to form support “bubbles” with another household from July 6, and to meet in groups of up to six people outdoors.

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