Easing the social distancing rule from two metres to one will have ‘no significant impact’ on the risk of spreading coronavirus, a government adviser claims.
Professor Robert Dingwall said a change in policy could allow four times as many people into a space as is currently allowed, signalling a huge boost for the hospitality industry, with a cabinet minister insisting this morning that pubs with beer gardens will be the first to reopen when lockdown is eased again in July.
It comes after the Government’s main coronavirus experts appeared to mix messages at last night’s Downing Street briefing, with chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance admitting ‘it’s not an absolute’ that a distance of less than two metres is unsafe, before chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty insisted it was ‘really important’ the rule was maintained.
Robert Dingwall, pictured, says easing the social distancing rule from two metres to one will have ‘no significant impact’ on the risk of spreading coronavirus
Pubs with beer gardens, such as The Withies Inn in Compton, Surrey, pictured, will be the first hospitality businesses to reopen when lockdown is eased in July
The Government’s main coronavirus experts appeared to mix messages at last night’s Downing Street briefing, with chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, pictured left, admitting ‘it’s not an absolute’ that a distance of less than two metres is unsafe, before chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, pictured right, insisted it was ‘really important’ the rule was maintained.
Today, Prof Dingwall, who sits on a Sage sub-committee, told Sky News: ‘I was pleased to see last night Sir Patrick Valance was conceding that the science was a great deal more uncertain than he previously acknowledged.
‘There has been a real problem in that the public health community have been a bit slow to grasp the evidence coming out of the world of engineers, that they are probably exaggerating the risk of transmission beyond one metre, and even at one metre there’s a general margin of safety.
‘That makes a big difference because with the two metre rule, the safe zone around a person is about 12-and-a-half square metres.
‘With a one-metre rule, it would be 3.1 square metres, so you have got about four times as many people into any given space, with no significant impact on the risk of transmission in that environment.’
The World Health Organisation recommends a one metre distance between two people from separate households, while there is a similar message from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Prof Dingwall added.
Boris Johnson told MPs this week it was ‘really difficult’ to bring forward hospitality measures in a way that involve social distancing but admitting he was growing increasingly optimistic.
The Prime Minister recently announced that open-air activities and businesses such as market stalls, garden fetes and car showrooms can return from next week, and now it seems pubs with outdoor seating will get the green light to start trading again first in the hospitality sector.
The lack of space allowed under the current two-metre distancing rule could keep 80 per cent of pubs from opening, landlords warned last week
In a discussion about self-employed workers who cannot go back to their jobs, Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News this morning: ‘The sectors that are going to have the greatest challenge getting back to work, which we recognise, and I’m sure the Chancellor recognises this too – the hospitality sector and some of those other ticketed venues, in particular cinemas and in particular theatres, restaurants and pubs, will also face a challenge getting back in to operation.
‘And that is why we won’t be loosening the restrictions on them until at least July and even then it is likely that in the case of pubs and restaurants it will begin with beer gardens and outdoor areas only.’
If the guidelines were relaxed, it would allow pubs, restaurants and hotels to welcome more people into their venues than what would be permitted under current social distancing guidance.
Tables could be moved closer together in restaurants, pubs could allow more people at the bar and hotels would be able to increase the numbers of visitors, all helping to drive profits and kick start their businesses.
The lack of space allowed under the current two-metre distancing rule could keep 80 per cent of pubs from opening, landlords warned last week.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said only around one in five would be able to reopen with two-metre distancing, but a one-metre gap between punters would bring the majority back.
Encouraging use of its gardens made up part of JD Wetherspoon’s £11million masterplan to reopen the chain’s 875 pubs across the UK, announced last week.
Pubs and restaurants have been closed across Britain since the government imposed the coronavirus lockdown at the end of March. Pictured: Staff at the Greenwich Tavern in London sell takeaway alcohol from a window to the street earlier this week
Pubs bosses have called on the government to change the social distancing laws to lower the current two metre rule, which they say will stop them from opening their pubs
Environment Secretary George Eustice, pictured, said this morning: ‘We won’t be loosening the restrictions on [hospitality] until at least July and even then it is likely that in the case of pubs and restaurants it will begin with beer gardens and outdoor areas only.’
Other plans included telling punters ‘not to meet in large groups’, while expecting them to sanitise their hands on arrival using dispensers dotted around the venues.
Pressure to ease lockdown restrictions further is coming from the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), which represents about 20,000 British pubs and the majority of brewers.
Its chief executive Emma McClarkin said polling of members showed about 40 per cent could not survive until September if they remained closed, and the pub sector was burning through roughly £100million in cash every month during lockdown.
On questions about reducing social distancing last night, Sir Patrick Vallance said: ‘It’s not an absolute (that) beyond two metres is safe and slightly less is not safe, there’s a graduation across that, and so roughly at a metre it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 times more risky than at two metres.’
Professor Whitty said it was ‘really important’ that people stayed two metres apart when meeting outside, adding they would not be counted as a contact, and therefore would not need to self-isolate if someone they met at a distance then developed coronavirus.
Prof Whitty, who said that keeping the distance will ensure the risk is low, added: ‘If you do maintain two metres distance and the contacts you’ve had turn out subsequently to have coronavirus, you will not be counted as a contact and you will not have to self-isolate.
‘On the other hand, if you don’t, then if they get coronavirus then a) you might get it and b) because you might have got it, it’s likely that you’ll have to self-isolate.’