The falling numbers of coronavirus cases has given the Government “more margin for manoeuvre” in easing the two-metre social-distancing rule, Boris Johnson has said.
The Prime Minister, who has ordered a “comprehensive” review of the regulation in England, said “probably” fewer than one in 1,000 people now had the virus, meaning the chances of coming in contact with someone who was infected were increasingly remote.
Earlier Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the review would look at the issue “in the round”, drawing on advice from economists as well as the Government’s scientific and medical advisers.
He said it would be ministers, not the scientists, who would take the decisions on any relaxation of the two-metre requirement.
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.
Speaking during a visit to the Westfield shopping centre in east London to highlight the re-openings, Mr Johnson said people should be able to “shop with confidence” as they returned to the high street.
With official figures showing the economy shrank by a fifth in April, ministers are desperate to get economic activity going again amid warnings of further large scale job losses to come.
Ministers are under intense pressure from Conservative MPs who see the easing of the two-metre rule as crucial to the next phase of the reopening, including pubs and restaurants, slated for early July.
Mr Johnson said they were constantly looking at the evidence to see when it would be safe to do so.
“As we get the numbers down, so it becomes one in a thousand, one in 1600, maybe fewer, your chances of being, two metres, one metre or even a foot away from somebody who has the virus are obviously going down statistically, so you start to build some more margin for manoeuvre and we’ll be looking at that,” he said.
The Department of Health and Social Care said 41,698 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 5pm on Saturday, up by 36 from 41,662 the day before.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted: “Yesterday, across the UK, only 36 deaths were recorded with coronavirus – the lowest since March 21. We are winning the battle against this horrible disease.”
During a round of broadcast interviews, Mr Sunak, who is among the ministers pressing for a relaxation of the two-metre rule, said countries such as Denmark and Norway had already adopted shorter measures.
He said that moving to a lesser distance could be the difference to between “maybe three-quarters and a third” of pubs being able to re-open sustainably next month.
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.”
Mr Johnson said he did not know whether to expect “a flood or a trickle” when the shops reopened but that he hoped people would return in “sensible” numbers.
“I am very optimistic about the opening up that is going to happen tomorrow,” he said.
“I think people should shop and shop with confidence, but they should of course observe the rules on social distancing and do it as safely as possible.”
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 one and Year six.
However, ministers will this week reaffirm schools can take children from other year groups provided they have the capacity to do so safely.
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.
Coronavirus: Everything you need to know