Downing Street said a review of the two-metre rule will take weeks and may not report back in time for pubs and restaurants hoping to reopen next month. Health Minister Edward Argar admitted the “science is mixed” and there is “no consensus” internationally about what distance is safe to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Conservatives warned keeping the measure in place will harm the economy and called for immediate reforms.
Ex-Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the government faces the “most important strategic decision” as it unlocks the economy.
He told the Commons the focus on coronavirus meant there was a danger of “losing sight” of the impact on the poorest if they are hit by unemployment.
“It could be six weeks before we discover the outcome of a review where I don’t believe a single fact is going to change in that six weeks,” he added.
“The reality is the advisers are all divided.
“The Government must make a decision and get this one right.”
Tory former minister Tobias Ellwood said a one-metre rule would be “game-changing” for reopening schools and the economy.
He added: “One metre is the right decision, now is the right time, not in two weeks.”
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Greg Clark, chairman of the science and technology select committee, questioned why the UK has a two-metre rule when “almost all other countries, advised by reputable scientists, have had a smaller distance”.
He added: “Many of these countries have a shorter distance rule but require face coverings to be worn. Why is it right for them but wrong for us?”
Mr Clark said it was “vital” the review reports back soon to allow hospitality businesses to put in place plans to allow them to reopen from July 4, the point the government wants to ease more restrictions.
“Millions of people, workers in pubs, cafes and restaurants and in manufacturing industries, as well as children going to school and young adults in colleges and universities, depend on this decision,” he added.
Maintaining the two-metre rule would mean many pubs and restaurants would only be operating at about 30 per cent of their normal revenues, while dropping it to one metre would at least double it.
But senior government advisers, including the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, want the two-metre rule to remain in place while the virus continues to spread.
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Chris Whitty has made it clear he wants the two metre rule to remain
Rules differ across the globe, with the UK in line with Canada, Estonia and Spain, while Germany, Belgium, Italy and Australia has a 1.5 metre rule and France has one-metre social distancing.
Downing Street said the review will “look at evidence around transmission of the virus in different environments, incidence rates and international comparisons”.
Yesterday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said social distancing rules will only be eased when it is safe to do so to avoid a second spike that would harm the economy.
Mr Raab said a government review will be “underpinned” by science and going too quickly would dent public confidence.
But he indicated a decision could be made before July 4, the earliest date pubs, restaurants and hairdressers can reopen.
“The review of the two-metre rule will inform that,” Mr Raab said.
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Dominic Raab said changes to the rules would be considered as transmission rates reduced
Mr Raab said the Government wanted to stop a second spike of coronavirus
The Cabinet minister said the review will try to “learn as much as we can” from other countries about the impact their rules have on the infection rate.
He added: “We have got to make sure we proceed in a careful, sure-footed way. We don’t want a second spike, that would be bad for public health, bad for the economy, and bad for public confidence.”
Mr Raab said changes to the rule can be looked at as transmission rates are brought down.
“There’s no magic to one or other particular measure, there will be different levels of risk whether it’s at two metres, one-and-a-half metres or one metre,” he added
The hospitality sector has warned it will be badly hit if the rule remains in place, with a million jobs at risk.
Ex-Cabinet minister Sir John Redwood said: “Given that the scientific advice is mixed and muddled and given that the economic and business advice is overwhelming and clear, why don’t ministers announce the halving of the distance, ask business to put in other measures including protective clothing and screens where appropriate?
The vital importance of social distancing
“If we want our hospitality industry to survive in any form, they need to know today so that they can prepare their routes and their tables and their screens and all the rest of it, leaving it until July 4 means many more lost jobs.”
But Conservative Michael Fabricant raised concerns about a potential second spike.
He said in the United States, Sweden, Belgium and Germany and now China there has been a resurgence of Covid-19.
“If we were to take any move too soon, nobody would thank us, including businesses, if we had to go back down into lockdown,” he added.
Mr Argar said the review was about “striking the right balance” between protecting public health outcomes and the impact on businesses.
Coronavirus map latest
The Health Minister said he understood concerns about the need to give businesses getting ready to reopen guidance as early as possible to allow them to prepare.
“I know that the Prime Minister is clear that this will report within a matter of weeks,” he said.
“The reality of this is that there is not a fixed science about this, there continues to be a scientific debate about what is the most effective distance.
“And one of the reasons, for example, that we have the two-metre distance in place at present is because the scientific advice from Sage is, for example, that a reduction in distance from two metres to one metre would carry somewhere between a two and tenfold increased risk of transmission.”