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Ministers fear top scientists Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance could quit over two-metre rule

Senior ministers fear the top scientists advising the Government could quit over plans to ease the two-metre rule.

Professor Chris Whitty, the popular Chief Medical Officer, and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance have made it clear they believe the current guidance on safe distancing should stay.

But Boris Johnson will tomorrow pave the way for it to be relaxed amid fears it could spark millions of job losses, with hospitality particularly badly hit.

And Chancellor Rishi Sunak said ministers are ‘urgently’ looking at whether it can be relaxed to boost shops and allow more pubs and restaurants to reopen.

He said it would be a decision for ministers rather than scientists as to when the change comes. 

The Sunday Times claims Downing Street is concerned at the scale of opposition among scientists, who far it could lead to a second spike in coronavirus infections. 

“The worry is that Whitty and Vallance could resign,’ a source told the newspaper.

‘It is getting to the stage where they are threatening to minute their opposition to moving from two metres. Those minutes get formally released.’

It came as senior Tories have compared Boris Johnson to his predecessor Theresa May, accusing him of being ‘paralysed’ by uncertainty over coronavirus.

Senior party figures including a Cabinet Minister have rounded on the under-pressure Prime Minister, accusing him of presiding over ‘flip-flopping and malaise’ at the heart of Government. 

It comes as a new poll by ORB International shows that a majority of voters (52 per cent) thinks the Government is handling the pandemic badly, although that number has fallen.

Sir Patrick Vallance

Professor Chris Whitty

Scientists including popular Chief Medical Officer Professor Christ Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser and Sage chairman, are against the move on public health grounds.

Senior party figures including a Cabinet Minister have rounded on the under-pressure Prime Minister, accusing him of presiding over 'flip-flopping and malaise' at the heart of Government

Senior party figures including a Cabinet Minister have rounded on the under-pressure Prime Minister, accusing him of presiding over ‘flip-flopping and malaise’ at the heart of Government

There is also anger after plans to fully reopen primary schools before summer had to be scaled back because there is not enough space in classrooms. 

The Sunday Times today cites three top Tories, a former and ex-Caninet minister and a former No10 aide, as comparing Mr Johnson to his predecessor, who was booted out after floundering for months over Brexit.

The aide told the paper: ‘Back in the day, people said Theresa was paralysed and couldn’t make a decision — it’s like that with Boris.

‘This flip-flopping and malaise comes from the very top. The likes of Rishi and Matt [Hancock, the health secretary] are pulling their hair out.’

It came as Mr Sunak said ministers are ‘urgently’ looking at whether the two metre social distancing rules can be relaxed to boost shops and allow more pubs and restaurants to reopen, Rishi Sunak said today.

A new poll by ORB International shows that a majority of voters (52 per cent) thinks the Government is handling the pandemic badly, although that number has fallen since last week

A new poll by ORB International shows that a majority of voters (52 per cent) thinks the Government is handling the pandemic badly, although that number has fallen since last week

In a clear sign he would like the rule eased the Chancellor admitted he could see the ‘positive impact’ of reducing it to 1.5metres or one metre, citing other nations which have already made such a change.

It came as the UK’s high streets prepare to come back to life from tomorrow, with non-essential retailers allowed to open their doors for the first time since March.

The Chancellor told shoppers it was safe to go out and said it was important to save people’s jobs. 

He told Sky’s Ridge on Sunday: ‘It’s the difference between three quarters and maybe a third of pubs opening. So it is importantly that we look at it.’

The Sunday Times today cites three top Tories, a former and ex-Caninet minister and a former No10 aide, as comparing Mr Johnson to his predecessor, who was booted out after floundering for months over Brexit.

The Sunday Times today cites three top Tories, a former and ex-Caninet minister and a former No10 aide, as comparing Mr Johnson to his predecessor, who was booted out after floundering for months over Brexit.

The Sunday Times alleges that Mr Johnson agreed to move faster in restarting the economy after a meeting with the Chancellor, only to row back hours later after a heated discussion with aides.

There was also anger over the schools reopening debacle, with a source telling the paper: ‘There is zero chance of social distancing in schools. You either accept that or you go and find alternate locations, just as we did with the Nightingale hospitals. There seem to be zero plans for that.

‘We have a majority of 80, you can hire whoever you want. You can spend any amount of money. You can hire management consultants, specialists, pay Amazon to come in and deliver tests. There are no excuses.’

Meanwhile the PM is also facing anger for failing to chair a meeting of the Cobra emergencies committee in more than a month. 

Critics alleged in the Observer that it has been dropped because its members include the leaders of the UK’s devolved administrations, who are at loggerheads with the PM.

The insistence of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) on maintaining the two-metre rule has caused an intense political backlash, with Tory MPs and the Treasury joining forces to express concern about the economic damage it is wreaking.

Figures released last week showed the economy suffered a 20 per cent drop in GDP in April, the largest ever monthly collapse.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the party’s backbench 1922 Committee last week that three-quarters of pubs could open if the distance was cut to one metre, and cited the fact that 24 countries had introduced the flexibility to reduce it.

The infection rate in the community has dropped to just 0.06 per cent, while a further 181 people died in the UK in the last 24-hour period to be announced after testing positive for Covid-19.

Researchers found that there is a 1.3 per cent chance of contracting the virus when standing two metres away from an infected person; a figure that only increases to 2.6 per cent when separated by one metre.

The current ‘R’ rate is between 0.7 and 0.9: any number below 1 means that the spread of the virus is decreasing.

Mr Johnson’s new review will take advice from a range of experts, including the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance – but also behavioural scientists and economists. It will operate in addition to a rolling review of the guidance being carried out by Sage.

Prof Whitty has public spoken of the importance of the two-metre rule. He has said social distancing – as well as hand washing, ‘good cough etiquette’, the use of face coverings – will be in place ‘for as long as this epidemic continues’.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, has said there was ‘relatively little room for manoeuvre’ in easing the lockdown measures.

A source told the Sunday Times that they were worried the scientists would ‘minute’ their opposition to any change, meaning it would be published in records of Sage meetings.

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