Boris Johnson has ordered a review into the two-metre social distancing rule, continuing his drive to relax it against current epidemiological advice in the U.K.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak yesterday told Sky News that while the review will necessarily include input from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE,) ministers will take the final decision. Restaurants, pubs, and bars have constantly emphasised the unworkability of social distancing, labelling it “catastrophic” in April; celebrated restaurateur Jeremy King called it “impossible.” Pubs have consistently called for its reduction, and the most recent draft guidelines on the reopening of pubs, bars, cafes, and restaurants were purposefully vague on what “social distancing” actually amounts to in the future. Brett Graham’s two-Michelin-starred The Ledbury has closed because its style of service simply does not gel with social distancing rules.
There is no doubt that a reduction to one metre would offer restaurants greater capacity, increasing the covers they can serve and the staff they can employ to do it; it would also enable tight kitchens to meet regulations where they otherwise might not, even if it would be more of a reverse-engineer than an assurance of safety.
This is complicated by two things: the knife-edge on which the U.K.’s coronavirus infection rate rests, and the apparent dissonance between Boris Johnson’s desires and medical and ministerial advice. As much as Johnson has pushed for social distancing to be reduced, ministers and medical experts have urged caution. New figures for the “R” number, which measures the effective reproduction value for novel coronavirus, suggest that it is at 0.8 — 1 in most parts of the country, close to tipping into a scenario where lockdown rules may need to be strengthened again; new polls on consumer confidence, however, reflect an increased willingness to dine out. Restaurants are, it seems, on the verge of becoming a lightning rod for tensions between economic recovery and public health.
More pressing might be how soon any review can be completed: restaurants are due to pay rent on 24 June, and can’t reopen at all until 4 July at the earliest. There’s already a sense of too little too late on that subject, and there’s also no guarantee, despite Johnson’s clear aims, as to whether a review will decide to cut the distance to one metre, or whether this will be a final decision.