Drinkers would be encouraged to order pints on smartphone apps and pubs could be patrolled to ensure social-distancing measures are enforced under plans to ease the lockdown for the hospitality sector.
Boris Johnson is expected to make an announcement next week on pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels – with their reopening in England an ambition from July 4 to start reviving the ailing economy.
With the coronavirus alert level having been reduced on Friday, the Prime Minister believes he has some space to relax measures in a boost for the sector.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told BBC Radio 4 that the review the PM ordered into the two-metre social distancing rule for England would be concluded “within the coming days”, while Whitehall officials confirmed the outcome is expected next week.
The rule seeks to slow the spread of Covid-19 but would be a heavy restraint on the hospitality sector when it reopens, with many bosses favouring the distance being reduced.
Guidance drawn up by the sector and ministers is understood to encourage pubgoers to order drinks using apps instead of going to the bar, while current legislation was said to include the powers for patrols.
The UK Hospitality trade body said draft Government guidance allowed a “degree of flexibility” over menus being discarded after every use and for cutlery only to be brought out with food.
Chief executive Kate Nicholls told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the plan was for individual businesses to draw up their plans to keep their team and guests safe.
“As the guidelines cover from a burger van in a park right the way through to the Fat Duck in Bray you need to have something that takes account everything in between rather than a one-size-fits-all,” she added.
It was stressed that decisions on further easings were yet to be made, but the PM said the lowering of the alert level from four to three allows ministers to “start making some progress” on social-distancing measures.
And he promised new guidance for the hospitality sector and businesses “very shortly”.
One expert informing the Government’s response to the pandemic as part of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) said he had revised his opposition to reducing the two-metre rule now transmission is low.
The University of Liverpool’s Professor Calum Semple told Today: “I’m still saying two metres is safer than one but it in my opinion it is now a reasonable political decision to relax these rules.”
He said he could “envisage going down to one metre with various caveats and other precautions” in order to reopen society.
The downgrading of the alert level by the UK’s chief medical officers, including Professor Chris Whitty, means transmission of coronavirus is no longer considered to be “high or rising exponentially”.
Localised outbreaks of Covid-19 are still “likely” to occur, the advisers warned, and the virus remains in general circulation.
The move was welcomed by Portugal’s ambassador to London who said the nation would like to form a so-called air bridge with the UK to give an exemption to quarantine measures to make foreign holidays possible.
Manuel Lobo Antunes told Today: “We think that the situation is under control and we would be happy to receive, as before, as many British as possible.”
On Friday, Mr Johnson told the public to “watch this space” when asked whether the distance restriction could be reduced to help schools in England return in autumn.
He has been under significant pressure from Conservatives to relax the distance and on Friday night former business secretary Greg Clark said evidence from other nations is “lower social distancing has worked”.
“It’s important we should benefit, it seems to me, from the experiences of others in this,” the Tory MP told BBC Newsnight.
Government scientific advisers have said they would be comfortable with a reduced distance if risk-mitigating measures were taken, such as people sitting side by side and wearing face coverings.
The PM also said it is his intention that children of all ages in England should be able to return to school on a five-days-a-week basis in September.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson suggested that primary school class sizes of 15, known as “bubbles”, could be expanded back to their normal size to allow more children back in the classroom.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford was planning to end its five-mile restriction on travel next month and allow holidaymakers to return a week later.
And in Northern Ireland, most pupils are set for a return to education in the autumn after ministers agreed to cut the social distancing measure to one metre.