Ministers rather than the Government’s scientific advisers will take the final decision on whether to ease the two-metre social distancing rule, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said.
Mr Sunak confirmed that Boris Johnson has ordered a “comprehensive review” of the rule in England as the Government continues its lifting of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
He said that it would look at the issue “in the round”, drawing on advice from economists as well as scientific and medical experts.
The move comes as non-essential shops in England prepare to open their doors to customers on Monday for the first time since the lockdown was imposed in March.
Ministers are under intense pressure from Conservative MPs who see the easing of the two-metre rule as crucial to the further reopening of the economy.
During a round of broadcast interviews, Mr Sunak acknowledged it would have a significant impact on whether the hospitality sector can reopen, which the Government has slated for early July.
“The Prime Minister has put in place a comprehensive review of the two-metre rule. That review will involve the scientists, the economists and others so that we can look at it in the round,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
“You are right to highlight the impact it has on business – it is the difference between maybe three-quarters and a third of pubs opening, for example, so it is important the we look at it.
“Obviously many other countries around the world use a different rule. We have seen a couple of countries recently – Norway and Denmark – have moved from two metres to something less as well.
Ultimately it is for ministers. We are the people who are elected to make decisions in this countryRishi Sunak
“It is important that we look at it comprehensively, in the round, and that is what we will do urgently.”
Scientists advising the Government, including chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty, have previously signalled their reluctance to see any easing while the Covid-19 epidemic continues.
Mr Sunak, however, made clear that it was for elected politicians to make the final decisions.
“Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance (the Government’s chief scientific adviser) throughout all of this have provided advice to ministers,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“Ultimately it is for ministers. We are the people who are elected to make decisions in this country. People should hold us responsible and accountable for making those decisions.
“I think that people are comforted and have confidence in those decisions if they know that we are taking advice from our scientists.”
Mr Sunak acknowledged many people would be “anxious” at the prospect of going out shopping again after almost three months in lockdown but he said measures had been put in place to ensure public safety.
“People will see from tomorrow it is a slightly different experience. But it is a safe environment and we should all be able to go out knowing that we should be able to shop in confidence,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“I know shops up and down the country are ready to welcome us all back and get our high streets springing back to life.”
The move comes amid fears of a new wave of job losses as the Government starts to wind down the furlough scheme which has seen the state pay the wages of more than eight million workers.
Mr Sunak acknowledged further redundancies were inevitable and said that it underlined the importance of getting the economy going again.
“Primarily we need to reopen our economy safely and slowly. That is the most important thing to try and safeguard as many of those jobs as possible,” he told The Andrew Marr Show.
“There is going to be hardship ahead. People are going to lose their jobs.”
Meanwhile, ministers have faced fresh criticism over their failure to get more schools in England to reopen, with most pupils set to stay home until September.
The Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said they risked undermining children’s basic right to an education.
“It has taken 200 years of campaigning to get children into the classroom, ensuring that education was a basic right for all children,” she told the Observer.
“We seem for the first time to be prepared to let that start go into reverse. And I think that is a very, very dangerous place to be.”
Mr Sunak said that every day children were away from school was a “tragedy” but insisted the Government had adopted a “reasonable and measured” approach.
Ministers will this week mount a fresh push to get more primary school children back into the classroom ahead of the summer break.
Currently, primary schools in England – which closed following the coronavirus lockdown in March – are opening to pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
However, ministers will this week reaffirm schools can take children from other year groups provided they have the capacity to do so safely.
It means limiting class sizes to just 15 while ensuring protective measures are in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A No 10 source said Mr Johnson was “acutely aware” of the impact the extended closure was having on pupils and was working with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on a major “catch-up” plan.