A handful of Conservative MPs are suggesting that the UK consider reducing its 2-metre social distancing rule to 1.5 metres in preparation for the reopening of the hospitality sector.
Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science committee, has already written to the Prime Minister asking that he "urgently review" the social distancing rule. This seems to have been prompted by announcement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak that employers are going to have to take on some of the cost of the furlough scheme. Clark's issue is that if the two-metre rule is still in place when non-essential shops and restaurants open, it could result in people losing their jobs. Talking to The Telegraph, he said:
"The difference between two metres and 1.5 metres may seem small but it can be the difference between people being able to go to work and losing their jobs."
Clark doesn't appear to be suggesting a free-for-all, and cites a paper from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that says it could be feasible to "enable distancing at less than two metres" if other 'covid secure' measures are implemented. Former Chancellor Lord Lamont echoed this sentiment, suggesting that measures to compensate for the reduced distance could include masks. Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he added that there could he "huge problems" for the hospitality sector if the two-metre rule continues to be enforced, saying:
"If you want a single measure that could help the hospitality sector, it would be a reduction in the social distancing from 2m to 1m."
Lord Lamont stated that, despite his support for the move, he doesn't want the government to "ignore" scientific and medical advice.
As with everything during this pandemic, the strategy employed by governments has differed country-to-country. Here in the England, we're entering phase two of the lockdown exit strategy this month, which includes the reopening of non-essential shops and the relaxing of rules to allow groups of up to six people to meet outdoors in public spaces or private gardens. While we're being given a bit more freedom, we're still being told to stay two metres apart, which people are ignoring country-wide from the looks of packed beaches, and anecdotal observations. For a little context, the World Heath Organisation (WHO) says that people should "maintain at least 1 metre distance" between themselves and "people coughing or sneezing", which is the rule France and Italy have stuck to, with Germany opting for 1.5 metres, and the UK and Spain sticking at 2 metres. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends six feet which is almost two metres.
Phase three will see the reopening of restaurants and other public places next month, presuming the five tests are still being met, and the two-metre rule is going to make it somewhat difficult for some businesses to appropriately accommodate that. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, joins Lord Lamont it suggesting England follow WHO-advised guidelines of one metre, saying:
"If you have 2m social distancing that's the difference between opening at 30% of normal revenues or 60% with 1m social distancing."
The problem is balancing what should be very straightforward rules with getting people to actually comply. If we're being governed by science here, in theory it should be fine to go down to 1.5 metres, as Clark wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister; it's still above what WHO advises and there's a rationale behind it that makes sense. At what stage do we shoot down a reasonable plan because we know it's not going to be adhered to? If people can't manage two-metres, how the hell will they manage with 1.5? Or a single metre? They couldn't even get them to wear masks for commuting, as suggested by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, with scenes of people spilling out of packed buses, and not social distancing. I'm sure we all know of or have seen people ignoring rules to drive somewhere, stay over somewhere, or mingle with people from different households when we weren't supposed to.
The suggestion isn't an unreasonable one, is backed by science from WHO, and will facilitate the reopening and operation of businesses that may otherwise struggle with social distancing rules. Whether the Prime Minister will stick to just science, or allow observations of how that translates to real-life to creep in - which may be needed - is another matter. On top of that conundrum, it's just another excuse to get everyone using the NHS app when it launches, and cooperate with the Test and Trace system, which is facing legal challenges over a number of shady practices. [BBC News]
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