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Government Review of Social Distancing Delays Reopening Plans for Restaurants

Further details on when and how restaurants could reopen were expected this week, but a new review aiming to benefit the industry has resulted in yet more uncertainty

Michaël Protin/Eater London

The government’s plan to update the hospitality industry on its plans for reopening in July have been delayed because of a last-minute decision to review the two-metre social distancing guidelines. Ministers had been expected to make an announcement earlier this week on how restaurants, pubs, and cafes would be able to reopen in the next phase of lockdown easing, but, according to a report in City AM, the publication of that information has been set-back as the government looks to reduce the distancing guidelines — in order to give more businesses a better chance of reopening.

City AM reports that the government has already drafted plans which outline the COVID-19 safety measures restaurants will need to apply as they reopen, but Johnson and other ministers have prevented its publication having forced a rethink on how businesses can reopen with a greater capacity. The reduction of the social distancing rule from two metres to one would represent a significant u-turn for the government and would apparently contravene the current scientific advice in the U.K. Nevertheless, ministers are looking to other countries (and the World Health Organisation) which recommend one metre as a safe distance to mitigate the transmission of the coronavirus.

The department for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) had told members of the government’s hospitality reopening task force that plans to allow the hospitality sector to reopen on the 4 July — the date set out in official guidance — would be announced on Monday or Tuesday this week. That didn’t happen, forcing trade body UK Hospitality to urge the government to urgently provide clarity for businesses, which need to plan, are due to recommence paying rent in one week, and which are being forced to make redundancies or un-furlough staff in advance of that date.

The government’s calculation is not without risk. The uncertainty resulting from the lack of clarity is already thought to have cost businesses millions of pounds and staff their jobs. Further uncertainty compounds that, while — despite the government’s determination to retrofit a better solution for more — there is no guarantee that it will be able to deliver the reduction of the social distancing rule. It will certainly not be able to do it without risking an increase in levels of transmission at a later date, which could in turn result in a second peak and a subsequent re-tightening of lockdown.

One member of task force told City AM: “Every day that goes by is costing the sector millions of pounds and at the end of the day we just really need confirmation of our opening date.”

A government spokesperson told Eater: “We want to be able to reopen pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes as soon as possible and it remains our ambition to do so from the beginning of July, but it must be safe so we do not risk a second wave of this virus.

“We are working with the sector at pace to develop guidance on how these businesses can reopen safely, and this will be published ahead of time to allow them to prepare.”

The government did not confirm when it would next make an announcement regarding those plans.

More soon.