Social Distancing: 2 Metre Rule

– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 15th June 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 3:35 pm, 15th June 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on publishing the review of the 2 metre social distancing rule.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his important urgent question. As part of our work to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Government have put in place social distancing guidance. The guidance specifies that everyone must keep 2 metres away from people outside their household or the support bubbles that have been in place since Saturday. I am grateful for the commitment and the perseverance of the British people in following these guidelines over the past few months; I know it has entailed huge sacrifice.

We keep all of our public health guidance under constant review to ensure it reflects the latest advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the latest evidence that we have on the transmission of the virus. The Prime Minister has commissioned a comprehensive review of the 2 metre guidance. It will take advice from a range of experts, including the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, as well as behavioural scientists and economists. It will also receive papers from SAGE, which is conducting a rolling review of the 2 metre guidance already. The review will examine how the current guidance is working, and will look at evidence around transmission in different environments, incidence rates and international comparisons.

Unless and until there is any change to the guidance, everyone must continue to keep 2 metres apart wherever possible, and must continue to follow our “stay alert” guidance, by washing their hands, for example, and self- isolating and getting tested if they have symptoms. I am aware there is a great deal of interest, understandably, in this matter from both sides of the House. However, I am sure that the House would agree that it would be premature to speculate about that review’s conclusions at this stage. We will, of course, keep the House updated on this work, and we will share any developments at the earliest possible opportunity.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons)

I am grateful to the Minister, for whom I have a very high regard, for his announcement of the review, but it was nearly three weeks ago when the Prime Minister told me at the Liaison Committee that he would commission just such a review and publish it in good time for the reopening of shops and other businesses today.

Let me be clear: I do not believe that we should act contrary to a rigorous scientific assessment; quite the reverse. What I asked the Prime Minister for was a scientific review. Among the questions it should consider are these. First, like the virus, science does not recognise national boundaries, so what is peculiar about the UK that has meant that we have had to have a 2 metre rule, when almost all other countries around the world, advised by reputable scientists, have had a smaller distance?

Secondly, what lessons have been learned from countries such as Germany, France, Singapore and Australia on their experience of shorter distance rules after a quarter of a year of operating them? Thirdly, many of those countries have a shorter distance rule, but require face coverings to be worn. Why is it right for them, but wrong for us?

Fourthly, there is a much lower rate of covid transmission outside compared with indoors. Why do we have the same rule regardless of setting? Will the review consider the total impact on lives and public health of the 2 metre rule, including the consequences of people being unable to work? Finally, and vitally, will it conclude in good time before 4 July, so that if more businesses are able to reopen then, including hospitality businesses, they can plan for what social distancing to enforce?

Millions of people—workers in pubs, cafés and restaurants and those in manufacturing industry, as well as children going to schools and young adults in colleges and universities—depend on this decision. We are fortunate in this country in having some of the very best scientists in the world, but so far our outcomes have not always been the very best in the world. Therefore, Ministers, officials and scientists should have the confidence, as good science itself does, rigorously to challenge current thinking and to apply lessons from the experience of others.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I can reassure him that his kind words about me are reciprocated; I of course have huge respect for him, not only for what he did in his previous roles in Government but for the work he is doing now as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of striking the right balance—and it is a balance—between protecting public health outcomes and public health, and understanding the impact that the restrictions are having every day on businesses. I am entirely seized of the difficulties of striking that balance.

My right hon. Friend asks whether the review will take into account the wider impact on society through the impact on business. I can reassure him that, given that economists are a key group in putting together this review, that is exactly one of the things that we will look at—scientific and medical evidence, but economic evidence too.

The work is already under way. My right hon. Friend highlighted the importance of timescales. Work has been ongoing for some time within SAGE, constantly to review and consider the impact and appropriateness of the 2 metre rule, but I hear exactly what he says about how important it is that businesses that are getting ready to reopen get guidance as early as possible to enable them to prepare.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is clear that the review must report within a matter of weeks. I will of course reflect to him the feeling, which I suspect my right hon. Friend Greg Clark will not be the only Member to convey, that it is important that this is done as quickly, efficiently and rigorously as possible to give businesses as much certainty as we can.

My right hon. Friend touched on the differences between the distances in different countries. The UK, Canada, Estonia and Spain, for example, have a 2 metre rule in place; the USA has 1.8 metres; Belgium, Australia, Germany and Italy have 1.5 metres; South Korea has 1.4 metres, and France and other countries have a 1 metre rule. The reality is that there is not a fixed science and there continues to be a scientific debate about what is the most effective distance.

One of the reasons that we have a 2 metre distance in place at present is that the scientific evidence from SAGE is that a reduction from 2 metres to 1 metre would carry somewhere between a twofold and a tenfold increased risk of transmission. That is why we have the present guidance, but we are very clear that the review will give us the basis to make considered decisions on the most appropriate way forward in striking the balance between public health and economic impact.

As ever, advisers advise—we have some of the best scientific advisers in the world, but we will of course look at the scientific advice from around the world—but ultimately Ministers decide, and Ministers will decide on the basis of the review and the evidence.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I congratulate the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Greg Clark, on securing the urgent question. We all want society to reopen, but we need to know the basis on which any changes will be made and by when they will be made.

I say that because, as we heard, a review was promised by the Prime Minister on 27 May, and he said at the time that we would get the results before 15 June and the reopening of non-essential retail. It is now 15 June and that review is nowhere to be seen, so what confidence can we have that this latest review will be published on time? The hospitality sector could reopen in England on 4 July, the date this review is due, but as we heard, even if it comes out on time, it will still be too late for businesses to put in place effective systems for reopening on that date. What about all those businesses that have already gone to great expense to reorganise on the basis of 2 metres? Will they receive financial support if the guidelines change?

As we heard, we know that if we change the rules on social distancing, we change the risk, so it is not only critical that the Government follow the science; they also need to be honest with the public about the level of risk that they consider acceptable. What evidence will be made available, particularly to those most at risk, in the event that we do see a change to this rule?

It is important that the review is not undertaken in isolation. The Government’s own scientific adviser and the World Health Organisation have said that measures should be eased only when there is a fully operational testing and tracing system in place. Will the review consider the robustness of that system, and can the Minister tell us when we will have a fully functioning system, with an app, in place?

Finally, since 11 May the Government advice has been to wear face-coverings where social distancing is not possible. That advice only became compulsory on public transport today. Can the Minister say why it took a month to make that advice compulsory? The Government were too slow on that, and have been too slow one PPE, on testing and on social care. We cannot afford to be too slow on this as well.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the shadow Minister, as always, for his remarks and for, as ever, the constructive tone that he adopts on these occasions. I share his view that we do want to see the United Kingdom reopening for business, but we want to see it do so in a way that is safe for those going out and shopping—and I encourage people to go out and frequent their shops from today. I also want to ensure that when we are able to safely open hospitality again, we get it going and do so in a safe way based upon the evidence.

On timescales, as my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, the Chair of the Select Committee, and the shadow Minister have said, we recognise the importance of getting this information and this decision out there as swiftly as possible, because it is important to give businesses all the time we can to prepare for it. Equally, however, the shadow Minister would not expect me to set a particular deadline while the work is being done. I have said that that will be within a matter of weeks and that we recognise the urgency for business, but it is important that those conducting the review can do so properly and rigorously, so that it is useful for the decision we have to make. Once that review has reported and the Prime Minister has had the opportunity to consider it, I would, of course, expect the findings to be made public.

On the WHO’s comments, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight that the 2 metre distance is only one part of the measures—only part of the complex package that is in place to reduce risk and to protect public health. As we have seen, different countries around the world have adopted different approaches, such as on whether to reduce the distance and have imposed different requirements on the wearing of face masks. Therefore, there is, in a sense, a menu of different options all of which can reduce risk, and the question is how to come up with the most appropriate balance between reducing risk while also opening up business. On the Committee we see economists and clinical and scientific expertise feeding into that balance-picture. As the Chancellor said at the weekend, it is not binary; we must consider this in the round, considering all relevant factors.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned test and trace. It is a hugely important part of the armoury of options to chase down this disease and allow our economy to reopen. As he will have seen last week, we made a very good start in the first week of the operation of the new test and trace system. We also saw a very, very high willingness on behalf of members of the public to self-isolate when asked to do so, and I pay tribute to everyone who has done that and thank them for doing so.

Finally, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I believe that throughout this pandemic we have been learning every day about how the disease behaves, about what is needed to tackle it and what steps are most effective, and I am confident that we have done the right thing at the right time throughout. However, like any responsible Government, of course there will be lessons to learn and it is important that we are willing to learn them.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Greg Clark on securing this urgent question, because this is the most important and significant strategic decision the Government are going to have to make as they unlock the economy. The problem is that so much of this debate has been shaped around the idea of the economy as an economic tool, but it is not just economic. The reality is that, with our focus on covid, we are in danger of losing sight of what will happen, probably to the poorest in society, if people start to fall unemployed and suffer depression and increased illness. This will have a major effect on the ability of people to be able to manage their lives. So this is not just economic. It could be six weeks before we discover the outcome of a review, but I do not believe that a single fact is going to change in that six weeks. The reality is that the advisers are all divided; the Government must make a decision and get this one right.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I have huge respect for him and for his campaigning on this issue, particularly in the context of the extraordinary work he has done on social justice over many years. He highlights the importance of looking at the impact of covid-19, not just in the immediate context of health outcomes, but at its broader social and economic impact. He is absolutely right. He is also right to emphasise the need for urgency, and that is exactly how we will conduct this review.

On his final point, he is right: the science is mixed. There are different scientific opinions, and a balance must be struck between the best scientific advice and consideration of the impact on the economy. As a great former Prime Minister once said:

“Advisers advise, and Ministers decide.”

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe)

The risk of viral spread is influenced not just by the distance between people, but by the length of time they spend together. While research is measured in minutes, people could be sitting in a pub or restaurant for hours. Other factors include ventilation, the activity engaged in and whether face coverings are mandatory. The Government cannot wish away the fact that the risk of transmission increases as people get closer, and more than doubles from 2 metres to 1. Is it not safer to keep the distance at 2 metres but to work with all sectors to develop protective measures for when that is not possible? It could be a combination of personal protection, in the form of mandatory face coverings, and structural protection, such as using glass or perspex screens between tables in restaurants. We all recognise the impact on the hospitality sector, but surely a second wave would be devastating.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Before I answer, may I put on the record on behalf of myself and my hon. Friends our very best wishes to Amy Callaghan for a swift and full recovery? I hope that Dr Whitford will be able to convey our sentiments to her when they speak. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire is a member not just of the SNP family but of the family of this House, and we all wish her well.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire is well versed in these issues and is an eminent clinician in her own right. We have made it clear that the 2 metre rule taken in isolation is not the only factor. She is right to highlight the broader context: it is not just about distance, but about duration of contact, how close that contact was, and whether measures were in place to mitigate that, be it screens or other measures. She is absolutely right and, we must always remember that this is not a binary question—it is not just the 2 metre rule, or the distance rule, and nothing else. We must look at it in the round, as the Chancellor and, I believe, the First Minister of Scotland, rightly said. That is exactly what this review will be doing—looking at all those factors in the round, to come up with appropriate scientific and economic advice to the Prime Minister and Ministers so that they can make a balanced decision.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

The Minister is absolutely right that the evidence is changing daily and that we have a menu of options to deal with the transmission of covid. Increasingly, face coverings look effective. Would it not be worth relaxing some measures, such as the 2 metre rule, which make the pubs and restaurants in Thirsk and Malton and every other constituency financially unviable, and tightening up in other areas, such as requiring the compulsory wearing of face coverings in shops, and in pubs and restaurants when moving to and from a table?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and, as ever, a gentle but clear plug for his constituency encouraging people, when it is safe to do so, to come and enjoy those businesses and that hospitality. He is right to do so, because I—like every other Member of this House, I am sure—have spoken to restauranteurs and those in the hospitality industry and pubs, who are all very clear about the impact that this has on the operation of their business. We are incredibly sensitive to that, but it comes down to making an appropriate judgment on the scientific evidence, balancing economic impact and keeping the disease under control. He is right to allude to other measures within that package or menu of options, which will of course be taken into consideration in the review.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Opposition Whip (Commons)

A number of businesses in my constituency, just over the river in Vauxhall, were home to a thriving nightlife, with the culture of the South Bank. A number of them are small businesses in hospitality, tourism and the creative industries, with a number of people on freelance contracts and a number of people who have not been able to get any Government support over the last few months. They have all played their part in adhering to the lockdown rules, but their sector will be the last to open up. Social distancing rules will make a big difference to their ability to survive the next few months. Will the Minister take into account the particular nature of this sector? What assessment has been made of the additional impact of social distancing on these businesses?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Lady is right, and I suspect that, like other Members, she has had many constituents coming to her to explain how this could make a real difference to the financial viability or otherwise of reopening their businesses. We are incredibly sensitive to that. The Chancellor said over the weekend that it could make a difference between a third of pubs being able to open up or three quarters, depending on where the distancing level is set. I am incredibly sensitive to this, but as I said, it is not a binary choice; a number of measures will be considered in the context of this review. As I am sure her constituents and mine would wish, it is important that we strike a balance between protecting public health, going on the basis of the best scientific and clinical evidence we have, which is what the review will look at, and getting the economy up and running again as soon as we safely can.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

If our objective is to work towards social and economic normality while maintaining our hard-won control over the virus, as the incidence of infection in the general population reduces day by day, would it not be possible to reduce the social distance from 2 metres while maintaining downward pressure on the rate of infection? Is the acceptable rate of infection—below 1—a scientific or political decision?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Through the package of measures we have put in place to protect public health and press down on the transmission of this disease, we are seeking to do exactly that—as the incidence and infection levels go down, to start relaxing those restrictions where we can, step by step and in a cautious way, to allow businesses to operate. It is quite right and understandable that Members have different views on the pace at which we should be going on either one of those, but it is exactly those considerations that this review is looking to investigate.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

As the Minister has already acknowledged, as well as the social distancing rules, a rigorous system to test, trace and isolate every case is critical to keeping people safe. The WHO has said that the system has to be proven “robust and effective” before further easing lockdown measures. NHS leaders and leading scientists have said that test and trace is not fit for purpose, and local authorities, which have a critical role in tracing, say that their remit is still unclear and they do not have the critical data they need. When will he ensure that all local authorities have the information they need to support test and trace fully?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I thank the hon. Lady, her party’s spokesperson on this issue. In the first week of its operation, having been stood up pretty much from scratch, this system has performed extremely well, with 67% of those testing positive successfully contacted and responding with the information needed, and 85% of their contacts agreeing to self-isolate. There is more to do—of course there is—but that is a very positive start to this programme, led by Baroness Dido Harding, in its first week of operation. In answer to the second point, it is right that we continue, as we have done throughout, to work hand in hand with local authorities, as well as other public health authorities.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Mr Speaker—at least I have got that right this week. Mr Speaker—not Mr Deputy Speaker. I have at last acknowledged it.

My question is very much like that from my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew. As the R figure approaches zero—in some places, it is getting there—why the heck do we need social distancing, face masks on public transport and social isolating? If we get near zero, surely we can get back to normal.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am always grateful for questions from my hon. and gallant Friend. The latest figures—as of last week—are that R is not near zero, but is between 0.7 and 0.9. That shows that the infection and transmission rate is going down, but it is still only just below 1, which is why we must keep up the pressure on this disease and keep transmission rates down. He is right, as my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew alluded to, that as that figure and the transmission rate falls further, there will be more opportunities to relax, step by step and cautiously, the restrictions, but we are not there yet.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

As my right hon. Friend knows, I represent Derbyshire Dales, where tourism, hospitality and pubs are essential, not only to the local economy, but to the mental health of constituents. Will he reassure me that these issues will be at the top of the list of factors considered when reviewing the 2 metre rule, not least to enable the opening up of pubs promptly but when it is safe to do so?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is right. She, too, champions her wonderful constituency of Derbyshire Dales, which I have had the privilege of visiting in the past. She is right that it is important that we can open up pubs and restaurants and other similar businesses as swiftly as we can, but it is important we do it when it is safe and when transmission rates and public health measures suggest it is appropriate.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Scientific analysis is good, but many of the Secretary of State’s Back Benchers have long argued for a reduction of the 2 metre distance guidelines without basing that on science. Can he confirm, therefore, given that economists are on the review panel, that enough weight will still be put on the evidence from the scientists and that, if there is to be a relaxation, public health measures will go alongside it? On the economy, will he also look at the additional cost to business and consider the additional business support required to accommodate these measures?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Quite rightly, right hon. and hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches, in their comments about relaxing the social distancing rules, were reflecting the fact that the science is mixed; there is no scientific consensus across the world. There are different distances around the world in different countries. That is why we have this review under way. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that it will consider not only the clinical and scientific evidence, but the economic impact and evidence. It will look at that in the round, which is, as the Chancellor said, exactly the right thing to do. All that will be carefully considered, and decisions will then be made by Ministers on the basis of that review and the scientific evidence available.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Given that the scientific advice is mixed and muddled and that the economic and business advice is overwhelming and clear, why do Ministers not today announce the halving of the distance and ask businesses to put in other measures, including protective clothing and screens where appropriate? If we want our hospitality industry to survive in any form, it needs to know today so that it can prepare its routes and tables and screens, and all the rest of it. Leaving it until 4 July will mean many more lost jobs.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The reason is that the current scientific advice is that the 2 metre rule significantly reduces the risk of transmission and we have not yet beaten this disease. That is why the Prime Minister has put in place this review—to consider not only the scientific and clinical evidence, but—exactly as my right hon. Friend would expect—the economic evidence and impact. It is right that it be done on the basis of a review and of evidence, but I hear his very clear plea that the sooner the better for the sake of businesses. I accept that.

Photo of Kate Osamor Kate Osamor Labour/Co-operative, Edmonton

During the lockdown, small businesses in my constituency have planned considerable changes to their business models in preparation for reopening in a way that is safe for employees and customers. That not only takes time but is an extra financial burden for small businesses, in particular. Will the Minister please confirm what extra financial support is readily being made available for understandably worried small and medium-sized enterprises to help cover the extra financial costs associated with reopening?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about the amazing work that many of our businesses, large and small, have done to get themselves ready to reopen. I would encourage people, following the rules, the guidelines and the social distancing guidance, to get out there and support their local shops now that they have been able to reopen. As she will know, in recent weeks the Chancellor has put in place a significant package of support for businesses and individuals, and that is still there. It will obviously, as he has set out, taper in the coming months as the economy is able to reopen more fully. We have supported businesses throughout and we will continue to do so.

Photo of Imran Ahmad Khan Imran Ahmad Khan Conservative, Wakefield

I fully support recent statements by the Prime Minister that as the number of new cases falls it is right to re-evaluate our social distancing measures. In May, the Government of South Korea reduced their social distancing requirements to simply two arm’s lengths. It is crucial that we ensure that our businesses have the best chance to recover and rejuvenate, and are provided with the measures that will best permit them to do so. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently stated that if we do not reduce social distancing measurements, 3.5 million jobs will remain at risk. Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is safe to reduce social distancing measures, then that is the most reasonable and responsible thing to do?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if and when it is safe to reduce social distancing measures, that is what we should do, but it is for the review to report and advise us, and the Prime Minister, on exactly that.

Photo of Scott Mann Scott Mann Conservative, North Cornwall

The Minister will be aware that many of my constituents’ businesses are based around tourism, and that many of those may not reopen again in the winter should they find that distances are not reduced. First, may I ask him to join our Cornish campaign—Think Local, Shop Local? Secondly, will he employ all possible counter-measures to ensure that our tourism and hospitality sectors can be protected throughout covid-19?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this. I am very happy to join him in supporting Think Local, Shop Local in Cornwall. I do not know if I qualify for these brief few seconds as an honorary Cornishman, but if I do, that would be a privilege. He and my hon. Friend Steve Double have highlighted to me how important this sector is to their constituencies and their local economy, so it is right that we work to reopen businesses as soon as we safely can.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his answers so far. My colleague Diane Dodds, the Northern Ireland Assembly Economy Minister, is attempting to address this issue and to strike the delicate balance between precautions and economic survival. She has been taking scientific advice on it from leading scientists. Will the Minister commit to sharing his Department’s scientific evidence with the devolved Assemblies to enable us all to have the most up-to-date information so as to make informed decisions and begin to move forward?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

We have a very close working relationship with the Government in Northern Ireland. We will continue to maintain that and to share information as appropriate, as we have done throughout this pandemic. I pay tribute to the work of the Government in Northern Ireland in tackling it.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

The Lancet reports that there is a 2.6% chance of catching covid-19 at 1 metre and a 1.3% chance of catching it at 2 metres. The World Health Organisation recommends 1 metre. It is now time for the Government to decide. The Minister knows that this will be game-changing for reopening our schools and reopening our economy, but also for impeding the spread of this pandemic. He speaks about making the right decision at the right time. One metre is the right decision; now is the right time, not in two weeks.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for that question. The WHO says that the distance should be at least 1 metre, so it is not prescriptive in that respect. We should make sure that we note that. He makes a very powerful case for getting our economy, and particularly our small businesses and hospitality businesses, moving again. We are making good progress in tackling this disease, and we do not want to put that at risk. The review will give us the scientific evidence to make an important decision on the way forward.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Anybody who has seen the crowds waiting for shops to open today, the people at recent demonstrations, and, indeed, MPs queuing at Parliament will know that it is human nature to push the limits. A distance of 2 metres gives a margin for error. If it is reduced to 1 metre, surely people will push that limit as well and stand even closer. I ask the Government to keep the rule in place for as long as it is required, knowing what human nature will do.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but the 2 metre social distancing rule has both a health and an economic impact. Therefore, we must look at this in the round, on the basis of both sets of evidence, which is exactly what this review will do.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

It is fantastic that more shops are now reopening in Stoke-on-Trent, and I hope that everyone supports our local retailers and market traders, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to maintain social distancing and that we should reduce it from 2 metres only when the risks have been assessed and it is safe to do so?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is exactly what the review will look at.

Photo of Gordon Henderson Gordon Henderson Conservative, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Caravans and chalets on holiday parks have to be at least 6 metres apart, so residents could easily observe current social distancing guidelines. When the Prime Minister undertakes his review, will my hon. Friend ask him to consider allowing holiday parks to open immediately? In doing so, he would help rescue the economy of coastal towns, which are already among the most deprived communities in the country.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

If I recall correctly, my hon. Friend has raised this issue previously. He is right to have done so and I am very happy to give him the assurances he seeks. I will pass his comments on to the Prime Minister.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Even if the Government were to reduce the limit as a result of this review, it would make very little difference to theatres and grassroots music venues. Neither a 1 nor 2 metre limit will make much difference to their capacity, because, just like us, they would still have to keep rows closed. Even with a 1 metre limit, half of the venue would be closed. Will the Minister ensure that the review takes that into account? Will he also pass on that information to the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to ensure that support remains in place for those sectors, even if the limit is reduced to 1 metre?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. A lot of the debate has focused on hospitality, pubs and restaurants, but he is absolutely right to talk about the impact on music venues, cultural venues and theatres, all of which play a huge part in our national life. I will, of course, highlight that issue for those conducting the review and the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Conservative, South Derbyshire

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the comprehensive review launched by the Prime Minister on the 2 metre rule will report back to Government as swiftly as possible? That will be very important to pubs and restaurants in South Derbyshire, which are chomping at the bit to reopen and welcome customers back.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend emphasises what a number of right hon. and hon. Members have quite rightly said, not least my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, about the need for the review to report with speed and urgency. I know that that message will have been heard very loud and clear.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

Throughout the coronavirus crisis the Government have failed the public. They failed to lock down quickly enough, failed on personal protective equipment, and failed on test, track and trace. Tens of thousands of people have needlessly lost their lives as a result of those failures. The Government’s chief scientific adviser has previously warned that

“the risk at 1 metre is about 10 to 30 times higher than the risk at 2 metres.”

Is not this push from Tory Cabinet members and Back Benchers to scrap the 2 metre rule a clear example of putting profit before public safety?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Well, it is nice to see the hon. Gentleman, who shadowed the team I was in when I was a Justice Minister, but I have to say that it is unsurprising that his tone remains the same. We are doing the right thing at the right time. We are, of course, always seeking to learn lessons, and we are willing to take advice and listen to the scientific and economic advice and evidence. That is what we are doing with this review. Surely he would welcome our taking the appropriate advice and then considering our decisions on that basis.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The current scientific advice says that the risks of transmission are far less in the open air than in enclosed spaces. Clearly, the position now should be that the Government need to look at reducing the social distancing rules when people are in the open air, while potentially keeping the advice strong when people are in enclosed spaces. That is clearly important for the hospitality industry, where beer gardens and restaurants with external areas where people can sit outside could restart. Clearly at the moment, with a 2 metre rule in place, they will be unable to. Will my hon. Friend look at the scientific evidence to see if we could actually have two sorts of guidance, one for when people are in enclosed spaces and one for when people are in the open air?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that this is not simply a binary choice, as there are many other factors that play a part, as other Members have alluded to—be it the length of time that one is in close contact with someone, the distance, and also whether it is inside or outside. Those are exactly the sort of considerations that those conducting the review under Simon Case will be considering.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

As we have found over the past few weeks, consistency of messaging is important, and 2 metres is currently consistent across the UK. All Governments in the UK have been questioned on this issue, so I ask the Minister to ensure that this and any future review involves consultation with the devolved Administrations. Can he confirm the mechanism that will be used for this, given that the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport expressed concern at last week’s Scottish Affairs Committee that the ministerial implementation groups have not met for at least two weeks?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Throughout this pandemic, we have had a very close working relationship between Edinburgh, Cardiff, London and Belfast, sharing information and having regular discussions between Ministers— indeed, as I understand it, not just territorial Office Ministers but across Health and other Departments. That will continue.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Conservative, Watford

Across my constituency of Watford, lots of people are today going to the intu centre and many of the shops and using the high street. I am hearing from many businesses that we need to allow them a certain level of flexibility as we come out of this review. Some shops where customers can wear face coverings should be allowed to have 1 metre distancing, and other areas should perhaps remain at 2 metres, but we should do it in a way that helps customers and helps shops and businesses get back to business.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the different pieces of the jigsaw that we have in use at the moment, be it distance, face covering or a whole range of other measures. I can reassure him that all those will be considered in the context of the review.

Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry)

Given that the evidence shows that the risks from transmission increase between two to tenfold with reductions from 2 metres to 1 metre, would the Minister agree that comparisons internationally over distance can be misleading while infection rates in the UK remain higher? Can he assure the House that in considering the risks involved in any such reduction, commercial and political interests will not be placed ahead of the need to keep the public safe?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

While I note the hon. Gentleman’s point about international comparisons, actually I believe that learning lessons from other countries is something that can be valuable and is something that will be taken into consideration in this review. We should always be willing to look externally to see if there is anything we can learn. As I have made clear to him and to other Members previously, it is important that we consider the scientific evidence and ensure that whatever we do keeps pressing down on the virus and protects public health, but at the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that it is important we get our economy up and running again as swiftly and safely as we can.

Photo of Gary Sambrook Gary Sambrook Conservative, Birmingham, Northfield

Businesses throughout Longbridge, Northfield, Weoley Castle and Kings Norton have done everything they can to follow the guidance, but they are desperate for the 2 metre rule to be reduced so that they can survive, and in many cases so that they can reopen. Will the Minister commit to publishing detailed guidance when the review is finished, so that organisations such as Northfield Business Improvement District can help to keep customers and staff safe and businesses can thrive?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is a great champion of businesses not only in his constituency but across his great city. I hear exactly what he says, and we have been clear that once the review has reported and the Prime Minister has had the opportunity to consider it, we expect the conclusions to be made public.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very kind remarks about my hon. Friend Amy Callaghan. We are all really rooting for her today.

It seems that one of the most obvious outcomes in politics is that the review will conclude that 2 meters will become 1 metre and the Government’s cavalier approach to easing the lockdown will continue. Thank goodness that we in Scotland have a “caution first” Scottish Government. Having listened to some Government Back Benchers today, one would almost believe that the health crisis is over and the issue is simply the reopening of the economy. Is the Minister prepared to stand up to them and tell them directly that there will be no reopening until the risks are overcome?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I would not prejudge what the review will say—it would be wrong to do so—but I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the measured and sensible contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches is correct. We have been clear that it is important that we do what is right from a public health perspective and that we strike the appropriate balance between beating the disease and keeping people safe and, where we can do so safely, allowing businesses to start to work again.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The Chancellor’s world-leading packages of support have provided a lifeline to millions of people and businesses during these difficult times, but that can go only so far. Blackpool South now has the highest unemployment rate in the entire nation, and our local economy’s dependence on the tourism and leisure sectors has left us particularly vulnerable. Local businesses now need a successful summer season if they are to have any chance of survival at all, so will my hon. Friend commit to supporting those sectors and opening up the economy by relaxing the 2 metre rule when it is safe to do so?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents in Blackpool, and my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers in the Treasury and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will have heard what he said. He was absolutely right in his final sentence: we are keen to get his local economy and the economy around the country going as soon as we can, but when it is safe to do so.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Labour, Brentford and Isleworth

The pub and beer trade in my constituency employs almost 2,000 people. Companies such as Fuller, Smith & Turner, which is based there, say that the difference between 2 metres and 1 metre is the difference between only 50% of pubs opening and most pubs being able to open. When the Minister does his review, will he take into account what is now happening at some pubs, which is that they are doing takeaways, causing long queues, and as the warm afternoons go on social distancing is forgotten and people are urinating everywhere—on footpaths and in public places? That is also a health hazard, but it would be mitigated if more pubs were able to open, so I hope he will consider that.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Lady makes a sensible point, as she always does. The review is being conducted under the auspices of the No. 10 permanent secretary, but with scientists, economists and others feeding into it. I am sure they will have heard what she said, but I will nevertheless ensure that it is passed on.

Photo of William Wragg William Wragg Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

I am sorry to be a bit of a killjoy, but while we lose ourselves in thoughts of pubs and restaurants reopening, could we perhaps attend to the minor matter of our national education system and the ability to have children return to school? The current 2 metre rule makes that impossible. On Friday I visited my old primary school, Norbury Hall in Hazel Grove, to see some of the measures being taken there. It will be absolutely impossible to return all children to school by September unless the rule is sorted out.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

If I recall correctly, my hon. Friend was a distinguished teacher before his service in the House and served on the Education Committee before he ascended to his current chairmanship of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. He is absolutely right to highlight the fact that there are impacts on schools as well as on businesses; that is one of the things that will of course be taken into consideration.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

As the Government ease the lockdown, we still do not have a sufficient test and trace system set up, the R level is increasing above 1 in some regions, and we still have more than 1,000 new confirmed cases every day. Should the Government be changing crucial social distancing measures, knowing that information? What immediate action is being taken in areas where the R rate has gone above 1 to help get it down? Would lowering this distance be putting profit before people and the economy before health?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I would caution the hon. Lady, on the basis of the SAGE advice, that in no region is the R rate above 1. Out of 10 models done recently one suggested that in two regions it might have gone up, but we consider this in the round, not by cherry-picking one study and ignoring the other nine; so it is not above 1. On her points about test and trace, we have set up the system from scratch and I believe we have done extremely well in the progress we saw reported in the statistics on the first week of the operation of that scheme. On her final point, we have made it clear throughout that this is about following the scientific advice and opening up the economy when it is safe to do so.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

May I say how surprised and delighted I am to hear so many colleagues, on both sides of the House, who seem to have as their hobby being epidemiologists, and it is great to hear what they have to say? I say to the Minister that I am very reassured by the tone he is taking in the answers to these questions. He will be aware that in the United States, Sweden, Belgium, Germany and now China there has been a resurgence of covid-19 and that if we were to take any moves too soon nobody would thank us, including businesses, if we had to go back into lockdown.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is right to say that this is about conducting this review so that we have the best scientific and economic evidence, and so that we can make the right decision at the right time, when it is safe to do so.

Photo of Ben Lake Ben Lake Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Whether the 2 metre rule is maintained or shortened, as Kevin Brennan mentioned, many businesses will find it will still not be viable to reopen. Given that, will the Government consider extending financial support to businesses that have to remain closed because social distancing measures would make reopening not financially viable?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard the Chancellor say on many occasions, we continue to keep all measures to support individuals and businesses under constant review, and I know that the Chancellor will have heard the point he makes.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

I concur with what has been said by many right hon. and hon. Members who have warned about the implications for the hospitality industry, in particular, unless we change these rules sooner rather than later and about the impact on coastal towns. I come back to what was said by my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, because has there not been greater flexibility on social distancing for pupils in schools but not for the many adults? That is part of the problem as to why so few children are able to come back. Can we look at this urgently? Otherwise in September we will still have many, many children deprived of an education.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend, a distinguished former children’s Minister, makes a very good point and that is exactly the sort of thing I will pass on to ensure that the review team considers it in the work it does.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister rightly says that this review has to balance economic and health factors, but the weight of importance of the health factors will obviously be more for those who are vulnerable or shielding. Will the Government be publishing particular advice for people in those vulnerable categories? Will he publish some of the health advice so that they can have confidence in the Government’s overall decision?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that this disease appears at the moment to hit different groups of people with different characteristics differentially, with some being hit much harder than others. One reason why we are undertaking this review is to make sure we look at all that evidence in the round. I do not want to pre-judge it, but, as he will know, we have always published a range of guidance and advice at each stage, often tailored to different groups, and we will continue to do that, where it is appropriate.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

The Minister will be aware that what looks like a very marginal change in the R number, which demonstrates the infectiousness of the disease, can have serious consequences for public health. With the current 1,000 or so new cases a day, if the R number were held at 0.9 over 60 days, those 1,000 people would infect 7,000 other people. If we allowed it to creep up to just 1.1, they would infect 25,000 other people, which means that three and a half times as many people would get the disease and three and a half times as many people would, sadly, die. So will the Minister commit, when the review is published, to publishing not only the Government’s assessment of how the R number will be affected by any proposed changes but also the Government’s projections of how many more people will catch the disease as a result and how many more people will die if the Government reduce the 2 metre requirement?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The review will consider economic and, particularly, clinical and scientific evidence. As I have said before, once the review has reported and the Prime Minister has had an opportunity to consider it, I would of course expect the conclusions of that review to be made public.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Our economy is heading for a deep recession, and the Government were slow to lock down, slow on PPE and slow on testing, tracking and tracing. As a result, we have the second highest death rate in the world. Easing the 2 metre rule will cost more lives. Not easing it will lead to millions unemployed. Either way, the Government’s negligence means that people are going to continue to suffer. The scientific and economic impacts of relaxing the rule are already available. Why are the Government running scared of making a decision?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Throughout, the Government have taken advice from the best scientists and clinicians we have available, and we have looked around the world as well. That is exactly what this review will do. When the review reports, advisers will have given advice and Ministers will decide on the basis of that advice.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne

One in five jobs in Eastbourne rely on hospitality. UKHospitality estimates that at 2 metres, businesses will operate at an unsustainably crippling 30% revenue, but at 1 metre, they would operate at between 60% and 70% and approach breaking even. We must of course pursue a safe recovery, as the Minister has outlined, but with the summer season now upon us and with opportunities to trade being time-sensitive, can he assure me that this guidance is being considered with the utmost urgency?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks. We are very much aware that time matters, and this review is being conducted as swiftly and as rigorously as it can be.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Before it is safe to reduce the 2 metre rule, do we not require a world-beating track and trace system to be in place? And does a world-beating track and trace system not require a fully functioning app?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As I have set out, I believe we have made an extremely strong and successful start with our track and trace system. Baroness Harding, who is heading up that piece of work, has made it clear that the app is important but that it is, as she characterised it, the cherry on the cake. It is not essential to the effective system that we have already got up and running.

Photo of Ruth Edwards Ruth Edwards Conservative, Rushcliffe

Some hospitality venues in Rushcliffe have told me that even if they were allowed to open, doing so with a 2 metre rule in place would make their business economically unviable. Can the Minister reassure the owners of those businesses in my constituency that the Government are listening to their concerns and that that reality will be factored into Government policy across the board?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend’s constituency is very near mine, so I suspect that both our constituencies have a similar perspective on that. I am happy to give her the reassurance she seeks.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

If the review is based on genuine scientifically robust debate, I will have no problem with it, but does the Minister accept that if the Government are going to move from 2 metres to 1 metre, they cannot do so on the night before 14 July and expect consumers to have the confidence to go back into bars and other places? It is fine and well to have the review, but there has to be good public messaging as well.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman makes a typically sensible point. It is important that the review is able to be conducted with proper scientific and economic rigour to ensure that we have the evidence base we need. I am not going to prejudge what the decision will be or what the review will say, but he is also right to highlight the importance of businesses having as much time as possible to prepare for whatever decision may be made.

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge Conservative, South Suffolk

On the health arguments, should we not remember that our hospitals have lost capacity in order to operate at 2 metres, and will the Minister assure me that the review will look at how many more beds we could get into hospitals to deal with the elective surgery backlog once they are safe in terms of covid?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about getting our NHS back up and running again not just for emergencies, but for elective procedures and other procedures, which is what we have been doing. The infection control context within a hospital is slightly different—indeed, considerably different—from that in businesses and other contexts, but he is right to highlight the impact that the necessary restrictions are having in a range of contexts on the ability to treat people or to serve people and businesses.