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Hopes high in NI hospitality sector as DUP's Foster looks to PM Johnston on reducing two-metre rule

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Northern Ireland's hospitality industry can be confident of getting a reduction on the two-metre rule after the First Minister said she will consider Westminster's upcoming decision on social distancing. (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Northern Ireland's hospitality industry can be confident of getting a reduction on the two-metre rule after the First Minister said she will consider Westminster's upcoming decision on social distancing. (Andrew Matthews/PA)

PA

Northern Ireland's hospitality industry can be confident of getting a reduction on the two-metre rule after the First Minister said she will consider Westminster's upcoming decision on social distancing. (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Northern Ireland's hospitality industry can be confident of getting a reduction on the two-metre rule after the First Minister said she will consider Westminster's upcoming decision on social distancing.

Prime Minister Boris Johnston is widely expected to cut the current distancing guidance down to one metre for pubs, restaurants and hotels today, following repeated calls from the struggling sector to help boost the economic restart.

Yesterday, Hospitality Ulster's chief executive Colin Neill warned that 60% of its members won't be able to reopen if social distancing remains at two metres.

When asked by the Belfast Telegraph if the Executive was going to stand by and let that happen, First Minister Arlene Foster indicated that they would take their lead from England.

"We do recognise that they (pubs) had to close very quickly once the lockdown happened and we've been working very closely with them, listening to their concerns... and we have heard very clearly what they're saying to us about the social distancing guidelines at present," she said.

"But we do expect some announcements tomorrow (Tuesday) around this from an English point of view and we will, of course, be looking at the evidence that will come forward from that."

Optimism in the local hospitality industry was further boosted by the latest Department of Health figures, which revealed another day of no coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Ireland and just one further confirmed case. During a recent investigation by this newspaper, several restaurant and cafe owners said they would not be able to reopen their premises on July 3 if the two-metre rule remains in place.

One of the restaurateurs, Glen Wheeler, from Enniskillen, who put his life savings into opening the 28 Darling Street restaurant with his wife in 2018, said social distancing would "make or break" them, depending on what happens over the next few days.

"It's great to be able to reopen on July 3 but it's very simple - if it's two metres we don't open," he said.

"We're quite a big restaurant but even at that I don't feel it would be a safe environment for my staff or a nice environment to eat in. We've measured it out - at one metre it can work, but not two."

Similarly, Ian Orr of Browns in Town, Londonderry, said the two-metre rule makes his business financially unviable.

"Basically, if it's a two-metre rule we'll lose money by opening, but if it's one metre we could work with that," he explained.

The Prime Minister will outline plans to Parliament today for pubs, restaurants, hotels and hairdressers to reopen in England from July 4.

But Dr Zeshan Qureshi, lead author of a report on social distancing for Oxford University's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there was scientific uncertainty around relaxing the two-metre rule.

His team has looked at every study published up to June 17 on Covid-19 and social distancing.

"This one to two-metre distancing, it's not based on data that we are getting from coronavirus," he said. "It is based on historic data, decades and decades old that has been applied to coronavirus in good faith."

Belfast Telegraph