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Long-Term Social Distancing for Restaurants Enhances Case for Further Financial Support

Scientists say one-metre distancing should be in place for “foreseeable future”, which means restaurants will need help mitigating losses

Socially distanced outdoor drinkers at the Marksman on Hackney Road, east London
Socially distanced outdoor drinkers at the Marksman on Hackney Road last year
Michaël Protin

With just six days to go until Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his much-trailed “roadmap” out of lockdown, Sky News has revealed that top scientists believe social distancing measures should remain in place in restaurants and pubs for the “foreseeable future.” The source of the leak is believed to be from among those who are campaigning on behalf of “liberty”, “freedom”, and the economy, much less public health and the safety of staff.

Leak-talk today has centred the reintroduction of the “one metre plus” approach, first applied when restaurants reopened last July. It meant that the previously established two-metre distancing rule could be halved so long as other mitigations were put in place by operators — masks, screens, hand-washing, and sanitising — to minimise risk to guests and employees.

As restaurants learned between July and November last year, their ability to trade under such restrictions is significantly reduced, thus adding extra weight to their case for ongoing financial support. Since January, businesses and trade bodies have been pressing chancellor Rishi Sunak for an extension to the VAT rate cut, business rates holiday, worker wage support scheme, as well as a reprieve on repayments demanded on government loans issued in the early months of the pandemic. So far, so schtum; Sunak has indicated that no update on the support package to restaurants will be given until he delivers his budget on 3 March, nine days after Johnson presents his plan on lifting restrictions.

But while those long-term implications will play out after next Monday, there are more immediate effects of today’s one-metre-plus mutterings: During the course of the next six days, Johnson is going to face mounting pressure from MPs in his own party to bring end to all legally binding coronavirus restrictions at the end of April. While that is highly improbable, the extent to which the Prime Minister feels that pressure may force concessions — ones which are against the better judgement of those scientists who say restrictions must be in place throughout the summer.

Sky News quotes a government source claiming businesses like restaurants and pubs simply cannot operate with social distancing measures into the future: “This is the killer argument and no decision has been made. A lot rests on it for some businesses — the difference between being viable and not,” they said. Without ongoing support from the chancellor, there’s no question that this statement is accurate.

And yet, it’s just 24 hours since Johnson said that his plan next week would be “cautious but irreversible.” With the Prime Minister, one never knows, but right now it looks like he’s actually going with the scientists — advisors, not politicians, whose argument is based on keeping people safe, including those people who work in restaurants. The scientific rationale is also designed to avoid another rise in infections in the future, which significantly enhances restaurants’ ability to stay open once they’ve reopened. It means avoiding another lockdown.

Social-distancing measures being in place for the “foreseeable future” is another vague uncertainty for restaurants to wrestle with after lockdown. It will be interpreted as ‘not returning to the new version of normal any time soon’. They won’t like it. But most of them will prefer to open with restrictions just so long as they receive the support they need, the support they’ve asked for, and with as best a guarantee as possible that no future lockdown forces them to close again.