Boris Johnson on Monday missed his own deadline for reviewing Britain’s controversial two-metre social distancing rule, with Downing Street promising that a new inquiry would conclude “in the coming weeks”.
Although there is a growing expectation that the rule will be relaxed, the prime minister’s announcement of a review, conducted by economists as well as scientists, has angered some Tory MPs.
They fear any rule change could come too late for pubs, restaurants and hotels hoping to reopen on July 4. “One metre is the right decision,” said Tobias Ellwood, former defence minister. “Now is the right time, not in two weeks.”
Mr Johnson first announced a review of distancing rules on May 27, when he told former minister Greg Clark that the government’s Sage scientific advisory body would assess the guidance and publish its results before the scheduled reopening of shops on June 15.
Mr Clark on Monday secured an urgent question in the Commons to ask why the deadline had been missed and why Britain continued to have one of the world’s strictest regimes on social distancing.
Edward Argar, health minister, said the new review would be “comprehensive” with input from economists and behavioural scientists, as well as staunch defenders of two-metre distancing such as Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser.
But Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader, said now was time for the government to act on “the most important strategic decision” related to lifting the lockdown.
Mr Duncan Smith echoed the frustration of many Tory MPs when he questioned the rationale for the new review. “I don’t believe a single fact will change,” he said. “The advisers are divided. The government must make a decision and get this one right.”
Fewer scientists are now coming to the daily Downing Street briefings, as tensions rise between the advisers and anxious politicians, keen to reopen the economy.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, hosted Monday’s briefing alone in what some saw as a shift of emphasis away from science towards politics. Mr Raab said the scientists’ absence was because they had “a huge amount of work to do”.
The hospitality sector is pressing Mr Johnson to provide clarity on when it can reopen and under what terms. Many pubs and restaurants have warned that it would be uneconomic to operate unless the two-metre rule is reduced to either 1.5 metres as in Germany or 1 metre as in France.
Rishi Sunak, chancellor, has been privately urging Tory MPs to make the case for change to Mr Johnson amid fears that the hospitality sector could be devastated if it cannot operate during the peak summer season.
Mr Sunak was among a number of ministers hoping to see the hospitality sector reopen for outdoor customers as early as June 22, but Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, strongly opposed the move.
The two-metre rule review will be led by Simon Case, permanent secretary at Number 10.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said Number 10 would give as much notice as possible to the sector about when it could reopen. So-called “non-essential retail” outlets on the high street were given less than a week’s notice to confirm they could reopen on June 15.
Mr Raab told the Downing Street press conference: “Ultimately politicians have to make the judgment calls.” There was “no magic” about any particular rule for social distancing, he added.