Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week noted that the scientists shaping Britain’s coronavirus response were “very cautious”, but there are signs he is starting to win the argument for a faster lifting of the lockdown so as to kick-start the economy.
Boris Johnson, a voice of caution in the lockdown debate in England, said this week he “hoped” that the two-metre social-distancing rule, one of the most stringent in the world, could soon be relaxed.
The prime minister told MPs the guidance from government scientists on social distancing might “evolve”: a smaller gap between people could transform the business environment, particularly for the hospitality industry.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has been pressing Mr Johnson to reconsider the two-metre requirement. He has warned that unless social-distancing rules are reformed trains and buses will have to operate at below 20 per cent of capacity.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who sided with Mr Sunak in calling for a faster lifting of the lockdown in England, has paved the way for pubs to start opening their beer gardens before the government’s original scheduled restart date of July 4 for the hospitality sector.
It appears that the science — the lodestar for Mr Johnson’s response to the virus crisis so far — is heading in a direction which suits those government members who want to get on with reopening the economy.
“The good thing that we’ve learned from the science of this virus in the last few weeks is that the risk of transmission outdoors is much lower — it’s not zero, but it is much lower than indoors,” Matt Hancock, health secretary, told the BBC on Thursday.
It all points to a possible acceleration of “step three” of the government’s phased plan to lift the lockdown, which was not due to take place until July 4 at the earliest.
In the government’s Covid-19 strategy, published earlier this month, the aim was to “open at least some of the remaining businesses and premises that have been required to close” by July 4, including hairdressers, pubs, hotels, cafés, churches and cinemas.
Asked whether that date could now be brought forward, Downing Street on Thursday said it would monitor the evolution of the virus as other lockdown restrictions are lifted. “Let’s see how we progress,” said Mr Johnson’s spokesman.
The World Health Organization recommends staying one metre away from other people, and its definition of contact with a person infected with the virus includes being within one metre for more than 15 minutes.
Several countries, including France, have told citizens to keep one metre apart, while Australia and the Netherlands recommend 1.5 metres. The UK, in advising two metres, is at the far end of the spectrum.
Patrick Vallance, Mr Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, on Thursday said the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies would soon publish new evidence on what constituted a safe distance for social settings.
“We have not said it’s two metres or nothing,” he told a Downing Street press conference.
He said that two metres was the point at which it was “very safe”, but that taking other measures — such as working side-by-side or back-to-back — could help stop the spread of the disease at shorter distances.
Amid the lockdown restrictions, parts of the hospitality sector are finding creative ways to do business.
Over the bank holiday weekend, some pub operators reopened their doors for customers to buy takeaway pints in plastic cups.
Clive Watson, chief executive of City Pub Company, said it had seen good trade at a couple of pubs near parks in London and he hoped that this proved to the government that premises could open in a “regimented” way.
But some pub operators warn that the two-metre social-distancing rule could severely hamper reopening plans as it will make certain sites, particularly small urban bars, unviable.
“Unless social-distancing restrictions are reduced to the WHO’s suggested one metre, two-thirds of pub jobs could be lost,” said Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association.
Mr Sunak shares the sector’s pain, telling Tory MPs last week: “Somehow Greece and Italy are opening up. This country can’t be the only place in the world where people can’t go and have a drink in the pub.”