A day after a minister said the government would not modify the current social distancing policy designed to restrict the transmission of coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reiterated his desire to reduce it from two metres, which he has said could result in an earlier reopening of restaurants and pubs in the U.K. This comes despite the U.K.’s most senior doctor, Chris Whitty, stating that the two-metre rule would need to remain unchanged for as the long as the epidemic continues.
Speaking at the press briefing in Downing Street yesterday alongside Whitty, Johnson said that the government had been able to lift restrictions in recent weeks — moves which have coincided with more hospitality businesses reopening for takeaway and collection only — because the government had seen “continuous falls in this disease, in deaths, in incidents.” It is this downward trajectory which gave he and government the hope that “eventually” it could do “such things as reducing the two-metre rule.” Despite Johnson’s comments, there still appears to be no timeline for the introduction of such a measure.
It was only yesterday that U.K. housing minister Simon Clarke told Sky News’ Kay Burley that the government is “determined” to keep the current two-metre restriction in place, reiterating that it was continuing to follow scientific advice and that it was “not doing this arbitrarily.”
Last week Johnson dangled a carrot to the hospitality industry, telling the House of Commons liaison committee that he was “optimistic” restaurants and pubs might be able to reopen earlier than he had first thought because of the likelihood of a change to the two-metre rule. He did not say whether that meant before the 4 July — the date given by the government as the earliest hospitality venues might reopen. The industry knows that even then, “crowded venues” like restaurants will likely have to wait even longer to reopen for dine-in customers.
Separately, the Prime Minister said yesterday that he said the country should expect “many, many job losses” as an inevitable outcome of the coronavirus crisis. The restaurant industry is aware of the new reality it faces once the furlough scheme — in which the state pays 80 percent of wages to staff unable to work as a result of COVID-19 — expires at the end of October. If restaurants can reopen, as they have begun to across the city in the last three weeks, they are doing so with few employees. Limited capacity for dine-in customers, social distancing measures of any kind, as well as consumer nervousness will necessarily mean that restaurants would operate with fewer employees than they did before lockdown, at least in the short- and medium-term. It is why trade bodies and action groups insist on a long-term solution to rent, which would ease pressure on those business’ biggest fixed outgoing.
The restaurant industry remains in a state of uncertainty on how and when it might reopen. Contradictory statements and lack of clarity from ministers do not aid its sense of unease.