The coronavirus pandemic looks like it’s behind us. Except it really isn’t. Many people in the United Kingdom have found Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s call to people to shop freely and with confidence.
The government could overrule its scientific and medical advisers to relax the two-meter coronavirus social distancing rule, the chancellor has said – as Boris Johnson urged Britons to head back to the shops.
Rishi Sunak asserted on Sunday that “advisers advise ministers, who are elected to make decisions” after being asked if it would be politicians or senior experts who would have the final word on what was safe or not.
Top men in the Conservative Party and business lobbyist organisations have been imploring the government to ease the rule in fear that it could make reopening their places of business profitless, but Labour advised that the government should follow the word of science and make sure that workplaces are safe before people return.
On Sunday there were a total of 36 recorded deaths upping the total tally to 41,698. This number is among the highest in the world, but the daily death toll is the UK’s lowest since March, though figures can be distorted on weekends.
“I am very optimistic about the opening up that is going to happen tomorrow,” Boris Johnson said ahead of today’s opening of non-essential shops after the lockdown began in March.
“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,” he added.
Speaking to journalist, he reinforced that the two-meter rule was under revision and contended that a falling death toll provided “more margin for manoeuvre” for easing the safety regulations.
However, he would be strained to convince the public of any actual change. The latest poll from YouGov showed support for keeping the two-meter rule in place at 58%, against a 24% who want the distance lowered by half.
Senior Tory figures added another layer of pressure on the government on Sunday over this issue. Former party leader Iain Duncan Smith used other countries as examples of his point.
“This is critical. All the evidence for this already shows that it is feasible to move to one meter; other countries have gone to one, France, in Germany it’s one and a half. Two meters, most of the scientists now agree, isn’t absolutely vitally necessary at all, because the likelihood of air-to-air transmission is very, very small indeed,” he told the BBC.
West Midlands mayor Andy Street from the Conservative side weighed in that the current distance would make it harder for “not just hospitality” but also “the same with education, the same on public transport, everywhere it’s the same”. He said he welcomed the revision advertised by the administration and that he wished it would decide in favor of a decrease in social distancing.
But Shadow Justice secretary David Lammy said the government should follow the science – something that ministers have in the past declared as their own.
“I don’t think it’s binary. I think the first thing is science: what does the science say, follow the science. The second thing is be frank and honest with the public in balancing risk as you make that determination. I think the government’s been slow: slow on testing, slow on lockdown, slow on PPE, and I think they’ll be slow on this,” he told the BBC.
“They’ve said they’re having a review; I don’t know the science, I think we will want to see the science. We would support the government on relaxing the rules, of course, as long as it’s the right time to do it. None of us want to be in this state of lockdown and paralysis forever and indeed our economy at some point [needs] to open up again, all of us recognize that.”
He added: “Many other countries around the world use a different rule and indeed, we’ve seen a couple of countries recently – I think Norway and Denmark – have moved from two meters to something less as well, but it’s important that we look at it comprehensively in the round and that’s what we will do urgently … I can very much understand the impact, the positive impact it will have on businesses’ ability to reopen and thereby maintain the jobs that they have.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC: “I think Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance throughout all of this have provided advice to ministers and ultimately it’s for ministers, whether it’s me, the prime minister, health secretary, and others, we are the people who are elected to make decisions in this country.
“People should hold us responsible and accountable for making those decisions, but I think people are comforted and have confidence in those decisions if they know that we are taking advice from our scientists in what is ultimately a health crisis, informed a lot by what is happening with regard to the spread of viruses.”
He added: “Whether they’re scientific or others, advisers advise ministers, who are elected to make decisions and people can hold us accountable for those, ultimately.”
Speaking to Sky News, Mr. Sunak said: “The prime minister has put in place a comprehensive review of the two-meter rule. That review will involve scientists, economists, and others so that we can look at it in the round.
“You are right to highlight the impact it has on business; I know that of course, it’s the difference between three-quarters and maybe a third of pubs opening, for example, so it’s important that we look at it. Now that we have made good progress in suppressing the virus, we’re at a different stage of this epidemic than we were at the beginning and that enables us to take a fresh look at this.”