Senior Conservative MPs are reportedly urging Boris Johnson to change the two metre social distancing rule to one-and-a-half metres to prevent large-scale redundancies.
While the Prime Minister spoke this week in favour of the two-metre gap, The Daily Telegraph said concerns are building that thousands of hospitality industry workers who have so far been unable to return to work could be laid off unless the rule is relaxed immediately.
Greg Clark, chairman of the Commons Science Committee and the former business secretary, has reportedly written to Mr Johnson urging him to relax the rule in light of new evidence.
“The difference between two metres and 1.5 metres may seem small but it can be the difference between people being able to go to work and losing their jobs,” Mr Clark told the paper.
Former Brexit secretary David Davis said alterations to the Government-backed furlough scheme should be implemented “in-step” with a relaxation of the two-metre rule.
He said some firms would be unfairly disadvantaged if they had to remain shut due to the two-metre rule while being forced to start paying towards staff costs again under changes to the furlough plan.
“What will happen is that they will shut, meaning the furlough money is wasted, and there will be no tax revenue from that business,” Mr Davis was quoted as saying.
The Telegraph said Mr Clark cites in his letter a new paper from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) which says it may be possible to “enable distancing at less than two metres” in certain areas, provided other Covid-19 control measures are implemented.
Highlighting parts of the document which suggest droplet exposure and infection risk “fall sharply at 1.5 metres”, Mr Clark said the paper did not appear to “establish the need for a recommended distance of two metres”.
The push to review the rule conflicts with the latest advice from the country’s coronavirus experts on Thursday.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance suggested two metres was still necessary as the risk of spreading the virus remained too great.
Sir Patrick said: “It’s not an absolute (that) beyond two metres is safe and slightly less is not safe, there’s a graduation across that, and so roughly at a metre it’s somewhere between 10 and 30 times more risky than at two metres.”
Professor Whitty said it was “really important” that people stayed two metres apart when meeting outside, adding they would not be counted as a contact, and therefore would not need to self-isolate if someone they met at a distance then developed coronavirus.
Prof Whitty, who said keeping the distance would ensure the risk remained low, added: “If you do maintain two metres distance and the contacts you’ve had turn out subsequently to have coronavirus, you will not be counted as a contact and you will not have to self-isolate.
“On the other hand, if you don’t, then if they get coronavirus then a) you might get it and b) because you might have got it, it’s likely that you’ll have to self-isolate.”
Mr Johnson on Thursday agreed with his scientific advisers, saying: “I must stress that to control the virus, everyone needs to stay alert, act responsibly, strictly observe social distancing rules, and stay two metres apart from those who you do not live with.”