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Explained: How Boris Johnson’s new review into the two-metre social distancing rule could save pubs from going under

The two-metre rule will hamper pubs from re-opening fully (PA)

4 min read

Despite constant pressure from the hospitality industry, lobbying from his own MPs and dire economic predictions, Boris Johnson has been unable to announce any reduction in the two-metre rule on social distancing.

The UK’s stubbornly high Covid-19 infection numbers have stopped it from following lots of other countries in relaxing the tight restrictions implemented at the start of the lockdown.

And the Government’s top scientists have refusing to sign off on any policy change until the all-important R reproduction rate of the virus comes down.

The two-metre rule has had an impact across all industries, as anyone who has been to a supermarket or caught public transport in the past few months will know.

But it is the hospitality sector which has been most badly hit.

The British Beer & Pub Association has warned that 40% of the UK’s 47,000 pubs may never reopen as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

And many businesses say they cannot reopen, or it would not be economical to do so, if the two-metre rule is maintained, because it would require them to reduce their customer capacity by around 75%, and in some cases up to 90%.

Evidence from Denmark, which has slashed the social distancing guideline to one metre, shows pubs would only have to cut the amount of patrons allowed in by 30% under a reduced rule. 

The Prime Minister has made it clear he would like to see the two-metre rule come down, preferably in time for 4 July, the first date in his lockdown “roadmap” when pubs could reopen.

But after having made a point of taking decisions based on the views of the Sage advisory committee - he has been hamstrung by the fact Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, have been among Sage figures publicly reticent, to say the least, about agreeing to that.


As the sector provides millions of jobs and billions into the economy, and with changes to the furlough scheme looming and a 20% fall in GDP last month, getting venues back in business has become a political matter as much as a public health one for Boris Johnson.

The PM admitted as much when he said: "The question for us is - as we get the numbers down so it becomes one in 1,000 (people infected with coronavirus), one in 1,600, maybe even fewer - your chances of being two metres or one metre or even a foot away from somebody who has the virus are obviously going down statistically.

"So you start to build some more margin for manoeuvre and we'll be looking at that, and we'll be keeping it under constant review as we go forward to the next step in our plan, which is 4 July.”

And having said for several weeks the policy was “under review”, on Sunday the Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed there was now a “comprehensive review” underway into it.

The difference is that this will take in the views of not just scientists and epidemiologists, but economists too, and will make international comparisons on how social distancing is used.

Downing Street has confirmed the review will be led by Simon Case, permanent secretary at Number 10, causing some to think this will see the Government effectively marking its own homework.

Given that it will only "draw on" advice from scientists, rather than following their guidance to the letter, there are fears the exercise could be used to simply find the evidence to fit its case for reducing the two-metre rule.


The PM's official spokesman said the review will report to the Covid Strategy Committee, chaired by Mr Johnson, adding: “It will look at evidence around transmission of the virus in different environments, incidence rates and international comparisons.

“It will draw on advice from scientific and medical experts as well as economists and papers from Sage.

"It will take advice from a range of experts including the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser."

Asked when it would be report back, the spokesman said “it will be completed in the coming weeks”.

That timeframe will not give landlords much time to get ready if 4 July is the day they are allowed to let customers through their doors again.

But if the results of the review allow the Government to give pubs and restaurants the green light to get going properly again, and potentially save millions of jobs in the sector, that is a problem they would surely be willing to endure.

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