Over the last three months of the Covid-19 lockdown, we have all got used to the ‘two-metre rule’ for social distancing.
The idea has been that if people try and keep at least 2m away from others when out in public, they will reduce the risk of passing on coronavirus, thereby cutting the infection rate and, ultimately, the number of deaths.
But now we are past the peak of the outbreak, and as the lockdown is being eased, some politicians are calling for the social distancing rule to be cut to one metre.
MPs, such as Iain Duncan Smith, say this would help businesses get back up to speed, as well as allowing more pupils to return to school.
Sir Iain said the 2m rule was the ‘critical component around which everything coming out of lockdown hinges’.
Critics of the current rule point to other countries, such as France and Denmark, which opted for a 1m rule. Other countries, including Germany and Australia, went with 1.5m.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed that the rule is under review, which could potentially mean a change could be on the way.
While he may be under pressure from Tory MPs, polling shows that the public is against relaxing social distancing.
YouGov polled 3,672 adults on June 11, with 58 per cent saying the social distancing rule should be kept at 2m. Just 24 per cent said it should be reduced to 1m, while eight per cent said it should be scrapped altogether.
Jonathan Bellamy, chairman of Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Business Improvement District, says reducing social distancing down to one metre would be hugely beneficial to many businesses in Hanley – especially bars, cafes and restaurants, which may get to reopen next month. But he believes the safety of staff and customers must remain the priority.
He said: “There are two sides to this. Firstly, any decision that increases the likelihood of a second wave of Covid-19 would be more disastrous for businesses than keeping the rule at 2m. So it’s really important that we know going down to 1m is safe.
“But on the other hand, reducing the social distancing rule would give a great boost to many businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector. Retail might be able to cope with 2m, but it would be more challenging for the hospitality sector. A restaurant might be able to keep its tables 1m apart, but 2m would be difficult.
“There may be creative solutions, such as having more seating outside and relying more on takeaway. But we need to look at the long-term picture – outdoor seating might not be possible in the winter.”
Abi Brown, leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, said: “I’m really pleased that the Prime Minister has said that the 2m rule is under review. Reducing it would help our hospitality and leisure sectors in Stoke-on-Trent. But the timing of any relaxation has to be right, as we need to ensure the public and workers are safe. A careful balance needs to be struck.”
At the Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Mr Johnson said that while the rule was being reviewed, it would only be changed once the Government was sure it was safe to do so.
He said: “The advice is that 2m is more effective at reducing the risk of transmission of the virus between us, and that’s why we’ve been going for 2m. Lots of countries go for 2m, and that’s the advice we’ve had from our scientists.
“But it’s also my view – an increasingly widespread view – that as we get the numbers down, as we get the rate of infection down in the country, then the statistical likelihood of any of us actually being next to somebody who has coronavirus is going down all the time.
“So we are keeping it under constant review, and as we depress the numbers, as we reduce the incidence, I think we’ll also have a strong case for reviewing those measures as well. I hope to be able to do that, but I’m afraid to say we can’t do it yet.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, said the 2m rule was not ‘absolute’, and that other factors, such as the wearing of face coverings, could also reduce the risk of infection.
He said: “Two metres is safer than 1m, but it’s not an absolute. The closer you get to someone the riskier it is, so it’s a risk assessment.
“As we’ve said in the evidence we’ve given scientifically that there are things you can do to reduce the risk on top of that, including being side by side rather than face-to-face, being in good ventilated space – the risk is lower outside, and face coverings can help when you’re in crowded spaces where you can’t avoid being close to somebody.”
Stoke-on-Trent South MP Jack Brereton expressed his support for the Government position during a House of Commons debate on the issue.
He said: “It is fantastic that more shops are now reopening in Stoke-on-Trent, and I hope that everyone supports our local retailers and market traders, but does my honorable friend agree that it is vital to maintain social distancing and that we should reduce it from 2 metres only when the risks have been assessed and it is safe to do so?”
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