The Government are reported to be considering relaxing the ‘two-metre rule’ for social distancing. About time.
To be frank, while the two-metre rule remains in place, large sectors of the economy remain unviable. While some cafes and restaurants have opened for deliveries and takeaways, only a handful of people can enter shops at the same time; far fewer than would be required to cover costs.
While these measures may have been prudent during the initial phases of lockdown, the two-metre rule is no longer fit for purpose, and should be reduced to one-metre.
To take just one example, the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) have been explicit in calling on the Government to reduce social distancing rules from two to one-metre. Even if beer gardens open, as rumoured by July, two-metre distancing will severely undermine capacity. Struggling pubs may appreciate any measures that stem loss, but this is far from the support the sector needs.
In my business, which designs and builds exhibition stands for large conferences, moving to a one-metre distance would enable exhibitions to resume, whereas a two-metre distance doesn’t allow a sufficient footfall to justify exhibitions going ahead.
If this sounds mad, consider that Germany, which has led one of the most effective Covid-19 responses in Europe, has announced exhibitions will not be classed as ‘mass gatherings’, enabling the resumption of shows as early as June.
Public transport represents another obvious flaw in the Government’s insistence on a two-metre distance. Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, claimed that public transport could only run at ten per cent of normal capacity with social distancing measures in place. Even self-powered commutes, for instance walking and cycling, often involve coming within two metres of another person. This is completely unworkable and contradictory to the Government’s stated desire for people to return to work.
It should be obvious to most reasonable observers that shutting down large sectors of the economy and public transport is not a viable option. Why then does the Government persist with this approach?
Supporters of the Government would argue that it has followed scientific advice in the interests of public health. On the face of it, social distancing has slowed the spread of the virus; the NHS hasn’t been overwhelmed. Most agree that we can’t risk a second wave of Covid-19, placing strain on the NHS and leading to another deep lockdown.
This view is perfectly sensible but forgets that two-metres was only ever a rule of thumb, rather than an objective measure of safety. The UK is a notable international outlier in its interpretation of a safe distance to avoid the spread of Covid-19. For instance, the World Health Organisation has recommended that a distance of one metre is safe, Australia one and a half metres; Italy and France one metre.
I can’t fault the Government for taking a safety-first approach initially, even if the evidence pointed to two-metres being merely marginally safer than one metre. The point is that we now have evidence from other countries that imposed a less stringent requirement and now have fewer excess deaths from Covid-19 than the UK. The UK’s more restrictive interpretation has not made us safer, but has placed an enormous burden on the economy.
Failure to relax the requirements under these circumstances indicate that the Government can’t admit it was initially overly cautious. So, while bars and restaurants are opening in France from the second of June, with one-metre social distancing, their British counterparts continue to suffer potential financial ruin.
The second point is that, while Covid-19 has been framed as a public health crisis, the link between economic and physical wellbeing is well known. Unemployment and underemployment take a severe toll on individuals’ mental and physical wellbeing. The Government must now grasp the opportunity to make whole sectors of the economy viable again and enable people to return to work.
I suspect the Government knows the two-metre distance doesn’t provide a significant increase in protection. The problem is that policymakers are scared of being seen to provide inconsistent advice, particularly in light of ongoing criticism of the failure to tackle Covid-19 and the widespread perception of hypocrisy by key government advisers.
If this is the case, the Government needs to get over itself. People will accept a relaxation of social distancing, and if anything will thank you for initially taking a cautious approach. What the public won’t accept is the fallout from the financial failure of large sectors of the economy.
The Government must act now to scrap the two-metre rule to get the country back on its feet. In doing so it can save not just lives, but livelihoods.