Rishi Sunak has indicated the government could soon reduce the two-metre physical distancing rule as way to help businesses, with the chancellor saying ministers would “actively review” the measure in the coming weeks.
“It will be a comprehensive review. It will be conducted very soon,” Sunak told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show, while stressing that the benefits of a reduced distance on shops, restaurants and others would need to be gauged against the health impact.
Pressure has been building on the government to reconsider the rule given the impact it has on the hospitality sector, and on shops, many of which are reopening on Monday, particularly after figures showing the UK economy shrank by 20.4% in April.
However, there are fears that reducing the limit to one metre could cause a resurgence in coronavirus infection rates, given the so-called R rate of infection is perilously close to one in several regions.
Sunak told Marr that a possible health trade-off involving a smaller distance but greater use of masks in public places would be part of the review, and stressed it would be up to politicians to decide, based on scientific advice.
“Ultimately it is for ministers,” he said. “We are the people who are elected to make decisions in this country. People should hold us responsible and accountable for making those decisions. I think that people are comforted and have confidence in those decisions if they know that we are taking advice from our scientists.”
In an earlier interview on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, Sunak was asked if he wanted the two-metre distance reduced.
“I can very much understand the positive impact it will have on business’s ability to open and thereby maintain the jobs that they have, and make sure all the people that work for them can come back to those jobs and remain employed, and that’s really important to me,” he said. “But at the same time, we must make sure that it’s safe to do so.”
But Sunak indicated a change was possible: “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.
“Obviously, many other countries around the world use a different rule and indeed, we’ve seen a couple of countries recently – I think Norway and Denmark, from memory – have moved from two metres to something less as well. But it’s important that we look at it comprehensively in the round and that’s what we will do urgently.”
The bulk of shops, those selling non-essential goods, are able to reopen from Monday, and Sunak said he hoped people would return to them, boosting the economy.
“We have always been an economy that is driven by consumption, driven by services and the numbers of people employed in these sectors are huge whether it’s in retail or in hospitality, there are millions and millions of people who work in these sectors,” he said.
Addressing the GDP figures on the Marr show, Sunak said the figures meant the economic damage caused by Covid-19 was “starting to become more real”, stressing that there was only so much any government could do.
“There’s no way I can protect every single job and every single business through this. There is going to be hardship ahead,” he warned.