A decision on the future of the two-metre rule will be “underpinned” by science, the foreign secretary has said, as Downing Street was warned “millions of people depend on this decision”.
Speaking at the latest coronavirus news briefing, Dominic Raab the restriction is “something that can be looked at” as the virus is brought under control.
“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 said.
The foreign secretary added: “We are still going to make sure that all of the policy judgements that we rightly as politicians take and are accountable for are underpinned by the science.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a “comprehensive review” into the measure, which has been in place since March.
Since then, people in the UK have been told to maintain social distancing when around others from outside their own household.
This has meant trying to keep two metres (6.5ft) apart from others when outside, at work and in shops and supermarkets.
Government guidance acknowledges that “this will not always be possible”, but adds that the risk of infection increases the closer you are to someone with the virus.
France, Denmark and Singapore are among the nations that have a one-metre rule.
The World Health Organisation also recommends maintaining a distance of “at least” one metre.
But the UK is not an international outlier when it comes to advocating two metres – Canada and Spain also have a two-metre restriction in place.
A Downing Street spokesman said on Monday the review into the restriction would be completed in the “coming weeks”.
But a number of Conservative MPs want the findings to be published sooner.
They argue businesses like pubs and restaurants – which could begin to reopen on 4 July as part of the next phase of easing lockdown – need time to prepare.
Supporters of reducing the restriction to one metre say it would allow significantly more businesses, particularly in hospitality, to open their doors once more.
They also argue it would protect thousands of jobs and allow more pupils to go back to school.
Former Conservative minister Greg Clark, who is now chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, told MPs it was “peculiar” that “almost all other countries” have a smaller distance in place.
He said: “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?”
“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.”
This was echoed by Tobias Ellwood, with the former minister saying “it’s now time for the government to decide”.
Fellow Tory MP Imran Khan claimed 3.5 million jobs are at risk if the two-metre restriction is not relaxed, while colleague Gary Sambrook said businesses are “desperate” for a reduction “so that they can survive”.
Sir John Redwood claimed the scientific evidence was “mixed and muddled”, as he called for an immediate reduction to one metre.
“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 4 July means many more lost jobs,” he said.
Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders also pushed the government on when the findings of the review would be published.
“We all want society to reopen but we do need to know the basis from which any changes will be made and when they will be made by,” he said.
Richard Burgon, a former shadow minister under Jeremy Corbyn, said the government would be “putting profits before public safety” if a one-metre restriction was introduced.
SNP health spokeswoman Dr Philippa Whitford said ministers “can’t just wish away the fact that the risk of transmission increases as people get closer and more than doubles from two metres to one”.