Reducing the two-metre social distancing guidance would put people at “much greater risk” of contracting coronavirus, Scotland’s chief medical officer has warned as Boris Johnson insisted the rule was “under review”.
Last night the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a presentation to Conservative MPs on countries around the world that allow people from different households to come within one or one a half metres of each other.
Rishi Sunak addressed the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers with concern growing among government MPs about the risk to tourism and hospitality businesses if the restriction isn’t eased by the time they are allowed to open in July.
Two thirds of pubs and restaurants may have to stay shut if patrons are required to stay at least two metres away from one another, the hospitality industry has warned. Senior backbencher Tobias Ellwood became the latest Tory MP to join calls for the two-metre social distancing rule to be reduced, telling the BBC that cutting the restriction to one metre would enable schools to resume more smoothly.
UK ministers were forced into a u-turn on allowing all primary school pupils to return to class before the summer holidays after admitting that it was too difficult to accomodate them all safely.
“One-metre distancing would change so much,” Mr Ellwood said. “It was, I think, the thing that allowed the teaching unions and the Government to have differences over. Getting two metres working in a school is incredibly difficult. Let’s not forget, one metre is what the World Health Organisation recommends. It’s also how much time you spend at one metre. If you’re in segregated positions - in seating, for example - one metre is as safe as two metres; if you’re facing different positions, for example.”
Nicola Sturgeon has said the two metre rule will remain in place in Scotland. At Prime Minister’s Questions, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford challenged the Prime Minister over the evidence on reducing the distance, raising Mr Johnson’s admission at a Commons committee hearing last week that “I do not actually read the scientific papers”.
“We know that the Cabinet has discussed reducing the two-metre social distancing rule but that’s not the experts’ advice right now,” Mr Blackford said.
“Sage reported that being exposed to the virus for six seconds at one metre is the same as being exposed for one minute at two metres.
“That is a significant increase in risk.”
The SNP MP added: “Will the Prime Minister continue to ignore the experts, or will he start following the advice of those who have actually read the scientific papers?”
Mr Johnson told the Commons: “As we drive this disease down, as we get the incidence down, working together, I want to make sure we keep that two-metre rule under constant review.”
The Prime Minister added: “There are all sorts of views about the two-metre rule, he’s absolutely correct in what he says about the Sage advice.
“But clearly, as the incidence of the disease comes down, as I think members of Sage would confirm, the statistical likelihood of being infected - no matter how close or far you are from somebody who may or may not have coronavirus - goes down.”
Meanwhile, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith told Holyrood’s Covid-19 Committee the “highly transmissible” virus is more easily spread than influenza and the scientific advice is that keeping two metres away from others is the “best balance”.
Asked why there appears to be no consensus about the measure of safe social distancing, Dr Smith said: “The advice from the UK advisory groups has been that the best balance - to provide the adequate levels of safety and reduced transmission between people - is that the UK should adopt the two-metre distance zone.
“As soon as you start to reduce that distance any further and the closer you get to one metre, the less time that you’re able to spend within that without the possibility of being able to transmit this virus.
“My view is that if we were to reduce that two-metre distance, based on the evidence that we have just now, then there would be a much greater risk of that virus transmitting between more people at this point in time.
“This is a highly transmissible infection. The closer we are to each other, the more easily it will spread to other people.”
Dr Smith told MSPs that lifting lockdown measures too quickly is “one of the worst things we can do” because it risks another surge in infections.
MSPs also heard evidence that 80% of coronavirus cases in Scotland have come from between 10% and 15% of those infected, a phenomenon known as “super spreading”.
Last night Mr Johnson announced that zoos and other outdoor attractions in England could open on Monday, and said people living alone could form a ‘support bubble’ with a single other household, allowing them to spend the night in one another’s homes without observing social distancing.