MailOnline.com: Saturday, May 30, 2020 – Senior Tory MPs have urged Boris Johnson to reduce the UK’s two metre social distancing rule as they warned failure to do so could risk a wave of redundancies in the hospitality sector.
There is a growing campaign for the existing restriction to be eased to one and a half metres or even just one metre.
This would give pubs, bars, restaurants and theatres much more room for manoeuvre when they are allowed to reopen and significantly increase the number of patrons allowed in a specific premises.
That could in turn boost the financial health of businesses and stop them from having to make staff redundant because of lower revenues.
Mr Johnson revealed earlier this week that he has asked top Government scientists to review the existing rule in the ‘hope’ that it could be reduced.
But Tory MPs, including former business secretary Greg Clark and former Brexit secretary David Davis, are seeking a commitment from the PM now.
Meanwhile, Tory former chancellor Lord Lamont said reducing the rule is ‘urgently important’ because it is the one “single measure” which could save many firms.
Pub chiefs have warned that if the two metre rule remains in place then two thirds are likely to remain shut.
But if it is reduced to one metre then three quarters could reopen immediately.
Polling has also suggested that 40 percent of pubs would not be able to survive until September if they have to remain closed.
What changes has Rishi Sunak announced to the Government’s furlough scheme?
Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a major overhaul of the furlough scheme ahead of its planned closure at the end of October.
Here is how it will work:
Furloughed workers will continue to receive 80 per cent of their pay up to £2,500 a month until the end of October.
But they will be able to return part-time from July without losing out financially, with businesses told to pay the percentage of wages for the hours worked.
The Government will pick up the full bill for the furlough scheme until the end of July.
From August, companies will then have to pay employer national insurance and pensions contributions for those on furlough.
In September, bosses will also have to pay 10 per cent of a furloughed employee’s wages, with the Government covering 70 percent up to £2,190 per worker.
The burden on firms will then increase to 20 per cent in October, with the Treasury picking up the remaining 60 percent up to £1,875.
The Government is adamant the scheme will close at the end of October.
Social distancing at two metres was introduced by the Government in a bid to reduce transmission of coronavirus.
The disease is passed on via droplets from coughs and sneezes which makes staying away from other people one of the best ways to avoid infection.
The UK has one of the strictest contact gap rules in the world to counter coronavirus transmission, double the one metre gap recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
That is the distance permitted in Hong Kong, Singapore, France and China, while Australia, Germany and the Netherlands recommend 1.5 metres.
France yesterday announced that bars and restaurants outside of Paris will be allowed to reopen with a one metre social distancing rule.
Mr Clark, who now serves as the chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, has written to Mr Johnson urging him to relax the rule.
“The difference between two metres and 1.5 metres may seem small but it can be the difference between people being able to go to work and losing their jobs,’ he told The Telegraph.
Mr Davis said alterations to the Government-backed furlough scheme, announced by Rishi Sunak yesterday, should be implemented ‘in-step’ with a relaxation of the two metre rule.
He said some firms would be unfairly disadvantaged if they had to remain shut due to the two metre rule while being forced to start paying towards staff wages again under the Chancellor’s changes to the furlough plan.
‘What will happen is that they will shut, meaning the furlough money is wasted, and there will be no tax revenue from that business,’ Mr Davis told the newspaper.
Mr Clark reportedly cited in his letter to the PM a new paper from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) which says it may be possible to ‘enable distancing at less than two metres’ in certain areas, provided other coronavirus control measures are implemented.
Highlighting parts of the document which suggest droplet exposure and infection risk “fall sharply at 1.5 metres”, Mr Clark said the paper did not appear to “establish the need for a recommended distance of two metres”.
Under the Government’s current lockdown exit strategy parts of the hospitality and leisure industries may be able to reopen in July with Mr Johnson insisting that “we are really trying to go as fast as we can”.
But many pubs, bars and restaurants will have fixed running costs like rent which mean they need a certain number of customers in order to make their businesses viable.
There are fears within the hospitality industry that keeping the rule at two metres will restrict customer numbers to such low levels that some firms – particularly those without much space – may have no choice but to scale back their operations or even close.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said that if the two metre rule remains in place then ‘two thirds of our pubs will remain closed’.
She said: “To open pubs up safely as soon as possible, it is imperative the Government explores the WHO’s suggested one metre rule for social distancing and allows pubs to reopen under those safe conditions in July.
“This will allow three quarters of our pubs to reopen and more staff to return to work – ensuring the tapered furlough scheme protects pub jobs as they reopen.
“We also call on the Government to recognise that up to a quarter of our pubs may not be able to open even with a one metre rule in place, in which case they will need the furlough scheme to continue at the current 80 per cent until they can reopen.”
Lord Lamont, who served as chancellor between 1990 and 1993, told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that social-distancing will cause ‘huge problems’ for the hospitality sector.
“It is self-isolation, it is social distancing, that is causing the huge problems for this sector,” he said.
“I am not for one minute saying that the Government should ignore medical or scientific advice.
“But I think it is urgently important if you want a single measure that could help the hospitality sector it would be a reduction in the social distancing from two metres to one metre.
“As I am sure you know, WHO, other countries, operate on a lesser scale and it is estimated that on two metres only 30 per cent of the hospitality sector could operate on a sustainable basis.
“Cut it to one metre and it might be 50 per cent, not necessarily profitable but it could survive.”
England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance suggested two metres was still necessary as the risk of spreading the virus remained too great.
Sir Patrick said: “It’s not an absolute (that) beyond two metres is safe and slightly less is not safe, there’s a graduation across that, and so roughly at a metre it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 times more risky than at two metres.”
Professor Whitty said it was “really important” that people stayed two metres apart when meeting outside, adding they would not be counted as a contact, and therefore would not need to self-isolate if someone they met at a distance then developed coronavirus.
Expert opinion is not unanimous on the matter with other government advisers suggesting the rule could be safely relaxed.
The PM said SAGE advice was that there was a ‘considerable reduction in risk’ at that distance, compared to a smaller gap.
But he added: ” My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down… we will be able to reduce that distance which I think will be particularly valuable on (public) transport and in the hospitality sector.’