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Coronavirus UK: Review of two-metre rule will take 'weeks'

Furious Tory MPs today lined up to demand immediate easing of the two-metre rule after No10 said a decision might not be taken for ‘weeks’.

Downing Street played down the chances of a swift change despite warnings millions of jobs are at risk, refusing even to guarantee that it will come before pubs and restaurants are slated to open on July 4. 

Former Cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Greg Clark were among the senior figures calling for an overhaul to the social distancing guidelines in the Commons this afternoon, pointing out that other countries were using lower limits. Ex-defence minister Tobias Ellwood said: ‘Now is the right time, not in two weeks.’  

There is a huge push within government to loosen the distance, with Rishi Sunak hailing the ‘positive impact’ it would have on business and jobs. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the No10 briefing this evening that two metres was not a ‘magic’ level, while stressing that action had to be ‘underpinned’ by science.

However, there are doubts in government over whether the test and trace system is ready to deal with the potential increase in cases, with the NHS app still on hold over technical and privacy problems. No10 sources flatly denied the problems with the app were delaying a shift on the social distancing guidance.

The WHO has cautioned that there should be no further loosening of lockdown until ‘robust’ contact tracing is in place. 

Hotels, pubs, bars, and restaurants have warned they must have clarity on the two-metre rule by Tuesday next week, when many firms have to make rent payments for the three months from July

Hotels, pubs, bars, and restaurants have warned they must have clarity on the two-metre rule by Tuesday next week, when many firms have to make rent payments for the three months from July

Boris Johnson (pictured at M&S in Westfield Stratford yesterday) has urged Britons to go out and support high streets amid fears that the social distancing restrictions are inflicting catastrophic harm on the economy

Boris Johnson (pictured at M&S in Westfield Stratford yesterday) has urged Britons to go out and support high streets amid fears that the social distancing restrictions are inflicting catastrophic harm on the economy

Dominic Raab told the No10 briefing this evening that two metres was not a 'magic' level, while stressing that action had to be 'underpinned' by science

Dominic Raab told the No10 briefing this evening that two metres was not a ‘magic’ level, while stressing that action had to be ‘underpinned’ by science

Easing 2m rule ‘will increase risk’ 

Easing two-metre rule will increase risk, a top scientist said today. 

But Dr Michael Tildesley, infectious disease scientist at the University of Warwick, said ministers had to take the economic factors into consideration as well at public health. 

The Government’s two-metre rule is currently under review, as ministers balance public health priorities with enabling more businesses to reopen. 

Speaking on BBC Breakfast today, Dr Tildesley said: ‘The evidence is still slightly unclear – depending upon the studies it could be anything from about twice the risk to 10 times the risk. 

‘So there is an increase in risk with going down to one metre. 

‘But I have to stress this is purely based upon public health, and the Government has to consider economic factors before taking a decision.’ 

Boris Johnson said last night that the country is building ‘room for manoeuvre’ by reducing infection rates. 

However, scientists and the public still appear to be strongly behind the rule – with suggestions chief medical officer Chris Whitty and science chief Sir Patrick Vallance might even be on ‘resignation watch’. 

The hospitality sector is planning to press the case in a meeting with business minister Paul Scully and local government minister Simon Clarke tomorrow.

UK hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls warned 30,000 to 40,000 firms could start redundancy processes next week, with a million jobs at risk.

‘If businesses are opening at two-metre social distance, then they’re operating at 30 per cent of their normal revenues and for a quarter of our small hospitality businesses they won’t be able to open at all,’ she told BBC Breakfast. 

‘If they open at one metre with additional protections to make sure staff and customers are safe, then they can reach 60 per cent to 70 per cent of their normal revenues, and that puts them at break-even. 

‘So, for many of those businesses it is literally about viability and we know that a third of businesses may not reopen as a result of prolonged closure, and that puts a million jobs at risk across the hospitality sector.’ 

The PM’s spokesman said this afternoon that the review will be completed ‘in the coming weeks’.

It will be led by Simon Case, permanent secretary at Number 10, and will report to the Covid Strategy Committee chaired by Mr Johnson.

‘It will look at evidence around transmission of the virus in different environments, incidence rates and international comparisons,’ the spokesman told a Westminster briefing.

‘It will draw on advice from scientific and medical experts as well as economists and papers from Sage.

‘It will take advice from a range of experts including the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser.’ 

Challenged that the timetable for the review was as vague as that for the NHS app, the spokesman said: ‘I wouldn’t make comparisons.’ 

At the daily briefing, Mr Raab insisted a decision on whether to reduce the two-metre rule would be ‘underpinned’ by science.

The Foreign Secretary said: ‘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.

‘As we bring the incidence and the transmission rate down, depending on the setting, it’s something that can be looked at.

‘We are still going to make sure that all of the policy judgments that we rightly as politicians take and are accountable for are underpinned by the science.’ 

Government sources denied that the delay to the NHS app – which has been tested on the Isle of Wight for more than a month, but still does not have a timetable for going nationwide – was holding up the two-metre decision.

‘The decision is not being held up. It started last week and work is ongoing,’ a senior source said.   

In a brutal assault in the Commons this afternoon, Science and Technology committee chair Greg Clark said the findings of the two-metre rule must be published well before July 4.

Mr Clark, former business secretary, said: ‘What is peculiar about the UK where we’ve had to have 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: ‘Will the review consider the total impact on lives and public health of the two-metre rule, including the consequences of people being unable to work.

In a brutal assault in the Commons this afternoon, Science and Technology committee chair said the findings of the two-metre rule must be published well before July 4

In a brutal assault in the Commons this afternoon, Science and Technology committee chair said the findings of the two-metre rule must be published well before July 4

‘And finally, vitally, will it conclude in good time before July 4 so that if more businesses are able to open then, including hospitality businesses, they can plan for what social distancing to enforce?’

Mr Clark added that the UK should ‘apply lessons from the experience of others’.

He said: ‘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.

‘We’re fortunate in this country in having some of the very best scientists in the world, but so far our outcomes have not always been the very best in the world.

‘Therefore ministers, officials and scientists should have the confidence, as good science itself does, to rigorously challenge current thinking and to apply lessons from the experience of others.’

Health minister Edward Argar responded: ‘We do recognise the importance of getting this information and this decision out there as swiftly as we can because it is important to give businesses all the time we can in order to prepare for it.’

But he added that he could not ‘set a particular deadline while the work is being done’.

Tory former minister Steve Baker told MailOnline that ministers had to weigh up the harm to the economy against the risk of easing the two metre rule. 

‘The economic harm of sticking with two metres will be profound,’ he said. 

‘And it will be profound in areas that everybody cares about, like going to the pub.

‘So if the government does insist on two metres when the WHO is saying one, they will have to be very, very clear with the public why those costs are being imposed on everybody.’

Mr Baker said it was not right to ‘blame scientists’. 

‘If you are a politician and you have to take a decision then you cannot afford to be cavalier about the economy. Therefore you have to take a balanced judgement and do what you think the public would most want,’ he said.

‘I think the public would accept a range of measures – washing hands , wearing facemasks on transport and so on. If we get towards Christmas and it is getting to be very very difficult to get a meal out or go to a pub because they have gone out of business, I don’t think the government would be thanked for that either.’

Mr Baker said ‘you would have thought’ that the app will make the decision easier. 

‘But of course everything is difficult,’ he added.

UK should not ease 2m rule until test and trace is ready, says WHO 

The UK should not lift lockdown rules until the test and trace system is ready to cope with huge numbers of people, a World Health Organization director has warned.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s chief for Europe, said the Government must only take sure-footed steps and not rush into decisions like scrapping the two-metre social distancing rule.

He said test and trace must be ‘robust’ and ready for ‘aggressive’ use if the number of new cases starts to soar again.

Dr Kluge said: ‘The key words here are to do it gradually. Do it carefully.’

His comments come after data last week showed that the NHS’s test and trace system was not able to get co-operation from a third of contacts in its first week.

Another senior Tory MP said ‘priorities’ appeared to be holding up the app. ‘It keeps getting pushed back, so there is some internal discussion on how they order this,’ they said. 

The MP added that the app should play a significant role in assuaging concerns about easing lockdown. 

‘The sooner we can adjust the two metre rule the better,’ they said. 

‘The more we have got mitigation in place the more that life can resume. We all need that to happen.’ 

In a round of broadcast interviews this morning, Mr Scully insisted the timetable for the review would be longer than a few days.

‘It will take a matter of weeks to do but we want to make sure we get the best scientific advice and we can look at the international comparisons,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

‘Clearly you have the likes of Germany, it’s one-and-a-half metres, America it is one-metre, and see how those differences land in terms of health guidance.’ 

Mr Scully said the Government did not want to be ‘rushed into decisions as we gradually open up the economy’. 

The Government’s advice to stay 2m apart is further than the World Health Organisation’s recommendation of at least 1m, and some other countries like France and Denmark.

Mr Johnson said: ‘As we get the numbers down so it becomes one in 1,000, one in 1,600 maybe even fewer, your chances of being two metres, one metre or even a foot away from someone who has the virus is going down statistically, so you start to build some more margin for manoeuvre.’  

Mr Sunak confirmed yesterday the Government would ‘take a fresh look’ at the regulation and suggested the decision was for ministers, not scientists, to take.

He told Sky News: ‘The Prime Minister has put in place a comprehensive review of the two-metre rule. That review will involve the scientists, economists and others so that we can look at it in the round.

‘I know that of course it’s the difference between three-quarters and maybe a third of pubs opening, for example, so it’s important that we look at it.’

The Chancellor said any decision on ending the lockdown before a vaccine was ready had an element of ‘risk’, but pointed out that other countries have lower distance requirements and were still managing to contain the virus.

‘Now that we have made good progress in suppressing the virus, we’re at a different stage of this epidemic than we were at the beginning and that enables us to take a fresh look at this,’ he said.

‘I can very much understand the impact, the positive impact it will have on business’s ability to reopen and thereby maintain the jobs that they have.’

Business minister Paul Scully (pictured) warned a shift will take time as non-essential shops get up and running for the first time since March

Business minister Paul Scully (pictured) warned a shift will take time as non-essential shops get up and running for the first time since March

Researchers found there was roughly a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when two metres from an infected patient. But halving this gap raised the risk to only 2.6 per cent. This means the disease would spread to fewer than three in 100 people, against 13 in 100 without any social distancing at all. That equates to an 80 per cent reduction in risk

Researchers found there was roughly a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when two metres from an infected patient. But halving this gap raised the risk to only 2.6 per cent. This means the disease would spread to fewer than three in 100 people, against 13 in 100 without any social distancing at all. That equates to an 80 per cent reduction in risk

The new distancing review will take advice from experts including the Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick. The panel will also include behavioural scientists and economists.

Mr Sunak suggested that the Government would be prepared to override the views of Sir Patrick and Prof Whitty if they did not agree with a reduction.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that scientists had made clear there is a ‘different degree of risk at different levels’, and the decision on relaxing the rule was ‘ultimately’ for ministers to make.

He said: ‘Much as I would like to see it reduced – everyone would like to see that reduced from an economic perspective – we can only do that if it’s safe and responsible to do so.’

Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘If other countries are doing it successfully, we need to move now.’

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said Labour would support a relaxation of the 2m rule if the evidence showed it was ‘the right time to do it’.

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