Boris Johnson has strongly hinted at changing the two-metre social distancing rule to help revive the economy as figures showed the carnage already caused by coronavirus in the jobs market.
The Prime Minister said “watch this space” in response to pressure to ease the rule, which businesses including shops, bars and restaurants say limit their ability to reopen.
Mr Johnson also said there was a “chink of light” in the battle against coronavirus as a study of the cheap, widely-available steroid dexamethasone indicated lifesaving results among some of the most seriously ill Covid-19 patients.
The need for action to support the economy was underlined by official figures which showed a sharp drop in the number of paid employees – down by 2.1% or 612,000 in May compared with March – and a huge increase in benefit claims.
Although the UK jobless rate remained largely unchanged quarter-on-quarter at 3.9% in the three months to April, with unemployment at 1.34 million, there are fears that more redundancies could follow as Government support is withdrawn over the coming months.
The Office for National Statistics figures came as Mr Johnson faced pressure from Tory MPs and business groups to ease the two-metre rule.
The next relaxation of lockdown measures in England could take place on July 4 if the coronavirus outbreak is under control, with pubs and restaurants in line to reopen – but hospitality chiefs have warned that many will remain closed because it is not worth them opening if the number of customers is severely restricted.
The rule was also part of the problem which prevented Mr Johnson meeting his goal of fully reopening England’s primary schools before the summer holiday.
Mr Johnson said: “I’m all too aware that the two-metre rule has big implications for schools and for many other sectors and I absolutely hear those concerns and will do everything in my power to get us back to normal as soon as possible.
“But we must proceed carefully and according to our plan, and I’m still committed to that central goal to get back to life as close to normal as possible, for as many people as possible, as fast and as fairly as possible, in a way that minimises the risk of a new epidemic, minimises the risk to life and maximises our chances of a strong economic and social recovery.”
At the Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said that as the rate of infection is brought down then the “statistical likelihood” of being in contact with a coronavirus carrier “is going down the whole time”.
If that continued he said “we’ll also have a strong case for reviewing those measures”, adding: “Watch this space, because we absolutely hear you.”
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance suggested the policy could be changed based on the setting and the prevalence of the disease.
“Two metres is safer than one metre, but it’s not an absolute, it’s a relative and obviously the closer you get the riskier it is, so it’s a risk assessment,” he said.
He said other steps to reduce risk include being side-by-side or back-to-back rather than face-to-face with people. Being outside, in a good ventilated space or wearing face coverings could also help.
“There are times in which this can be changed and that evidence of course can then be the basis of a policy decision on what the right distance is that should be mandated or put forward as the rule to follow.”
Early estimates for May 2020 show number of paid employees fell by 1.7% compared with May 2019, and by 2.1% when compared with March 2020. These are experimental monthly estimates of paid employees from @HMRCgovuk Pay As You Earn Real Time Information data https://t.co/y1p9FilHyn pic.twitter.com/GVhoy4TVgl— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) June 16, 2020
The ONS figures showed a decline in hours worked by people in jobs, while jobless claims under Universal Credit jumped 23.3% month on month in May to 2.8 million and soared 125.9% or 1.6 million since March when the UK was placed in lockdown.
Data published last week revealed that the UK’s economy shrank by 20.4% in April – the largest monthly contraction on record – as the country spent its first full month in lockdown.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds called for an emergency “back-to-work” budget focused on saving jobs.
“The Government was too slow to recognise the scale of the health crisis from coronavirus and we are already paying the economic price,” she said.
Mr Johnson was flanked in Downing Street by Oxford University’s Professor Peter Horby who led the dexamethasone trial.
Researchers found the drug reduced deaths by up to a third among patients on ventilators, and by a fifth for those on oxygen.
Mr Johnson said it was the “biggest breakthrough yet” in the battle with coronavirus.
Among other developments:
– The Prime Minister performed a U-turn in the face of a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford and agreed to a £120 million “summer food fund” to feed hungry children in England over the school holidays.
– The number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK has now passed 53,000, according to the latest available data.
– The number of “excess deaths” in the UK since the coronavirus outbreak began has passed 64,000, according to official figures.
– Scientists at Imperial College London will begin testing another possible coronavirus vaccine on humans this week.