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Pubs could reopen with marquees, face coverings and screens between tables, minsters hint

Pubs in England could reopen with screens between tables, compulsory face coverings and marquees to allow more outdoor seats, ministers hinted today.

A minister also said roads could shut to allow outdoor seating, pedestrianisation and more “temporary markets” to get the high street back on its feet.

Two ministers dished a buffet of possibilities in Parliament as they tried to quell a Tory revolt over the two-metre social distancing rule.

The PM has launched a review that could see it cut to one metre or 1.5 metres – and will listen to economists, not just experts on coronavirus.

But Tory MPs are angry after he only promised to finish it in “the coming weeks” – despite pubs hoping to reopen in England from July 4.

Today Health Minister Edward Argar told the House of Commons: “The current scientific advice is the two-metre rule significantly reduces the risk of transmission and we have not yet beaten this disease.”

A general view of a man waiting for his order outside The Hope and Ruin pub on Queens Road, Brighton
(Image: EMPICS Entertainment)

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But he added it is about « striking the right balance » between protecting public health outcomes and the impact on businesses.

And under questioning, he hinted the review might let pubs cut the gap in exchange for extra protection.

He repeatedly told MPs the two-metre rule is “not a binary choice” – and said “different pieces in the jigsaw” will be taken into account.

Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake asked if the two-metre gap might be cut in exchange for compulsory face coverings in pubs and restaurants, when moving to and from a table.

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Mr Argar replied: “He’s right to allude to other measures within that package, that menu of options, which will of course be taken into consideration in this review”.

SNP MP Philippa Whitford suggested the two-metre rule might remain, but with measures when it’s not possible – such as mandatory face coverings, or “glass or perspex screens between tables in restaurants.”

Mr Argar replied: “She’s right to highlight that broader context – it’s not just about distance, it’s about duration of contact, how close that contact was, whether there were measures in place to mitigate that, be it screens or other measures, the length of time.

“This is not a binary question. It’s not just the two-metre rule and nothing else. We must look at it in the round.

“That is exactly what this review will be doing, looking at all those factors in the round.”

Tory Bob Blackman called for two sets of rules – one indoors and one outdoors – to allow beer gardens to reopen.

Mr Argar replied that this is « exactly the kind of considerations » the review will be looking at.

It came moments after a second Tory minister, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, told MPs he is considering more outdoor seating, closing roads to cars and allowing marquees outside pubs to boost the high street.

Calling for a “vibrant cafe culture”, Mr Jenrick said: « I would like to see more outdoor seating, for that to be easier and cheaper for small businesses to get licences for.

« More temporary markets, more pedestrianisation and for it to be easier to do things like put marquees outside pubs for longer this summer.

« All the things we need to do to help our economy to get going in the summer months, and I will be working with local councils to bring forward our proposals very shortly. »

Pub giants, backed by Tory MPs, warn keeping the two-metre distance will make it impossible for them to break even.

But scientists say people may be ten times more at risk of catching Covid-19 from one metre away, rather than two metres away.

Despite warnings about the virus, Tory MPs lined up to slam the government for moving too slowly – and failing to guarantee the review will end by July 4.

Tory MP Tobias Ellwood told Parliament: “It’s now time for the government to decide. One metre is the right decision, now is the right time – not in two weeks.”

Tory Sir John Redwood said: « Why don’t ministers today announce the halving of the distance, ask business to put in other measures including protective clothing and screens where appropriate.

« Because if we want our hospitality industry to survive in any form, they need to know today so that they can prepare their routes and their tables and their screens and all the rest of it.

« Leaving it until July 4 means many more lost jobs. »

Tory Bob Stewart complained in “some places” the R number is “getting” towards zero and “why the heck do we have to have social distancing, face masks on public transport or social isolating?”

But Mr Argar corrected him to say the R was actually between 0.7 and 0.9.

But Labour MP Kate Osborne warned lifting lockdown too soon would be “putting profit before people and the economy before health”.

Labour MP Richard Burgon branded it “a clear example of putting profit before public safety »