Business pressure grows to relax two-metre advice

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Businesses have told the government that relaxing the two-metre advice is vital if companies are to survive the coronavirus crisis.

The World Health Organization maintains that a minimum of one-metre is sufficient, which is followed by countries such as France, Denmark and Singapore. In Germany and Australia the advice is 1.5 metres.

Backbench Conservative MPs, such as ex-leader Iain Duncan Smith, warned yesterday of shattering consequences if the social distancing advice was not lifted. He told the Mail: “The number one and single most important priority to unlock the economy is getting the distance down to one metre. The hospitality sector simply can’t make a living at two metres.”

He was supported by cabinet minister Damian Green who told Newsnight: “It would make a huge difference to many parts of industry. I would combine it with much greater mask-wearing. If we don’t do this it will be the end for many pubs and restaurants.”

Business secretary Alok Sharma said yesterday the two-metre distancing rule was under review in England. It is thought that many in the cabinet, including chancellor Rishi Sunak, are sympathetic and there is speculation that an announcement could be made in the coming days.

But former cabinet minister Rory Stewart told the BBC today scientific advisers were right to be concerned over any relaxation of the two-metre rule, given the additional damage that could be inflicted by a second wave of Covid-19.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, told yesterday’s Downing Street press briefing the two-metre advice was “not a rule”. At the same briefing, Sharma confirmed that non-essential shops could open from Monday, saying the move would “allow high streets up and down the country to spring back to life”.

Trade bodies such as UK Hospitality and the British Beer & Pubs Association (BBPA) recently submitted estimates showing escalating numbers of closures and job losses based on social distancing, at 1 metre, 1.5 metres and 2 metres.

They said that if the required distance was not reduced, so-called “wet-led” pubs, which depended more on alcohol sales than food would be particularly hard hit, because they needed to pack in drinkers in large numbers.

The BBPA also feared that pubs could lose access to the furlough scheme and grant support if they were technically allowed to open, while the reality of physical distancing rules meant that many could not.

Meanwhile, outgoing CBI director Carolyn Fairbairn has warned that business was in no condition to survive a no-deal Brexit, after talks with the EU broke up yesterday with little progress being made.

Fairbairn said: “Business resilience is absolutely on the floor. Every penny of cash and all the stockpiles have been run down. Firms do not have a moment of thinking time to deal with a no-deal Brexit.” She wrote to the PM today urging more action for young people and green-focused recovery plans.

The government says it wants a deal but insists that, “whatever happens”, the UK will leave the single market and customs union when the transition period closes at the end of the year.

Her replacement at the CBI will be Tony Danker, chief executive of productivity organisation Be the Business, a former strategy director at the Guardian and a former Treasury adviser.

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