Coronavirus has changed everything. Make sense of it all with the Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing. Sign up now.
Boris Johnson has said the government has “margin for manoeuvre” in cutting the two-metre social-distancing rule because cases of coronavirus are falling.
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 and the risk was getting smaller.
It comes amid mounting pressure from industry and Tory backbenchers to halve the distance to one-metre, which would bring the guidance in line with what the World Health Organisation recommends.
Scientists and health experts, however, are reportedly nervous of the move, cautioning government that minister risk a second spike the disease.
Earlier on Sunday, chancellor Rishi Sunak said the review would look at the issue “in the round” adding “ultimately it is for ministers”, rather than scientists, to decide.
Asked if chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty would have to back new social distancing measures, Sunak said: “Not necessarily, no.”
Speaking during a visit to the Westfield shopping centre in east London ahead of non-essential retail reopening in England on Monday, the PM urged the public to “shop with confidence” but to stick to the current two-metre restriction.
Johnson said they were constantly looking at the evidence to see when it would be safe to do cut the distance.
He told reporters: “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.”
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.
Meanwhile, 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.”