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Social Distancing: Two-metre Rule

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Monday 15 June in the House of Commons.

“I thank my right honourable 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 two 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 two-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 two-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 two 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 that 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.”

My Lords, the National Audit Office is the latest in a long line of independent organisations and care bodies to conclude that people and staff in care homes are an afterthought in the Government’s planning for Covid-19. We know that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people who are shielding from the disease were not warned or included in the last-minute government decision on 30 May to lift shielding. Will the Minister please reassure the House that the impact of any change to two-metre social distancing in care homes, social care and for people whose shielding periods are coming to an end will be fully considered in the review and that advice to them will be a key part of the revised guidelines in good time for any 4 July announcement?

The noble Baroness highlights an incredibly important consideration in the review on the two-metre rule. Clearly, those who are vulnerable or in social care deserve the best protection necessary. SAGE has been extremely clear that two metres provides emphatically more protection than one metre, and the protection of our vulnerable people will be an important consideration in any review.

My Lords, yesterday a Health Minister in the Commons repeated the mantra that advisers advise and Ministers decide. But trust in government has diminished greatly in recent weeks, so people need to know what is advised before accepting what Ministers decide. Can the Minister assure us that the advice to be provided by the Government’s scientific and medical advisers to this review will be published as it is written and submitted by them, independently of any government pressure, so that we will know whether or not any proposed change really is based on scientific and medical advice? There is a consensus that the Government were late on lockdown, late on face masks and late on testing and tracing, so we do not want to be premature in reducing the two-metre distance rule. Should we not be sure that we have a full track and trace system in place before considering easing the distance rules?

I do not recognise the contention of the noble Lord. Having been in many meetings with our scientific advisers, I deny the suggestion that scientists are open to being pressured by politicians. The advice that they have given is clear-cut and it is for us to consider its value. The noble Lord does scientists no favours by implying that they might be changeable under pressure.

There is a reluctance to give specific dates and targets, although targets on their own are not precluded in that reluctance. I am sure that my noble friend is aware that subjecting businesses, especially in the holiday and travel area, to this great uncertainty is giving rise to many problems, including among the general public, who do not understand why more specific dates or targets cannot be given. That means that there is a considerable lack of confidence. We have been told today that travel insurance companies are talking about not covering people unless they can show that they have complied with local social distancing rules. What efforts are being made by the Government to get a Europe-wide agreement on social distancing, especially at airports and on aeroplanes, and in restaurants and hotels?

My Lords, I completely and utterly share my noble friend’s frustration about the lack of clarity, but a fact of this epidemic is that the Covid germ is incredibly unpredictable. We have fought really hard to apply the best and most up-to-date science possible, which has meant that there has been a real struggle to lay out the kind of clear framework that he and the public would like to see. We remain guided by the science; we work closely with our foreign neighbours; and we are working hard to put in place a clear plan to take us out of lockdown.

My Lords, does the Minister anticipate that the two-metre social distancing rule will in fact be reduced following the review? I might be wrong but I think that it will be, in which case access to masks on high streets and at stations will become absolutely urgent. What plans do the Government have to ensure ready access to masks across the country? Would the Minister like me to send him details of one company that provides and installs dispensers of masks and hand-sanitising gel free of charge? I declare that I have no personal interest in this company but I believe that it and others like it, if they exist, will have a vital role to play in tackling Covid-19 if the social distancing rule is in fact changed.

My Lords, social distancing has without doubt been the most effective tool in the battle against Covid. That is why the Prime Minister has appointed the Permanent Secretary, Simon Case, to undertake a review, which will include the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser. The use of masks might offer some protection but in no way will it ever replicate the impact of social distancing. That is why we are not prejudging any review or making any assumptions about any changes.

My Lords, some of the Government’s own scientific advisers have said that being one metre apart carries up to 10 times the risk of being two metres apart. Are the Minister and the Government willing to take that risk? If so, will any changes to the two-metre rule be reviewed, assessed and changed if necessary, and how often would such further reviews take place?

The noble Lord’s maths is entirely right. That is why we are moving cautiously in this area, despite many people’s concerns and despite the profound effect on industries such as the hospitality industry, which we regret enormously. However, the main focus is to drive down the infection rate. If we can get the prevalence levels down sufficiently, social distancing will not be required any further, and it is on that target that we are focusing.

Do the Government accept that each day’s delay in reducing the two-metre rule will result in needless redundancies, that many of these jobs will go in the next few days and will not be replaced in the short term, and that we cannot wait weeks for a review? Failure to act now will see the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and that will hang like an albatross around the neck of the Administration.

No, I do not accept my noble friend’s analysis. In fact, social distancing, which is central to our strategy, has had an incredible impact on saving lives and protecting the NHS. You have only to look at the spike that is occurring in places such as Texas, Florida and, according to today’s news, Beijing to see what happens if you do not tackle the underlying prevalence of the disease and you allow the lockdown to end too early.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that if the blanket rule is relaxed for some, such as most primary school children, who appear to have a lower rate of infecting others, people who are shielding someone will be terrified that reducing the distance will endanger the life of the person they are protecting? Their need to maintain a greater physical distance will need to be clearly signalled—for example, through an officially issued lapel badge or lanyard, as I suggested yesterday—and they will need to have antibody testing.

The noble Baroness is entirely right. The kind of differential shielding that she suggests may well play an important role in what we do going ahead. We must do our utmost to protect those who are shielded. However, we are also aware of the challenge of having confusing regulations. That is why we are currently holding the line. We are aware of the effects on the economy, and that is why a review is on the horizon, but until then we are focused on reducing the prevalence rate and protecting those who are most vulnerable.

My Lords, most people in my area of Durham appreciate Dominic Cummings for putting Barnard Castle on the tourism map—for the wrong reasons—but does the Minister accept that the prime ministerial adviser’s breach of the self-isolation rules, with the hypocritical support of members of the Cabinet, was a major cause of the loss of faith in the Government’s credibility regarding continued acceptance of the distancing rules in England?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the British public, who have remained sensible and thoughtful to others, have largely borne the cost of social distancing and have abided by the rules of the lockdown. I express gratitude to all members of the public who have gone along with this incredibly impactful regime—a regime that continues to have a huge amount of support among the broader general public.

My Lords, I am afraid that the time allowed for questions on this Urgent Question has now elapsed. I call on the Whip to move that the House be adjourned until 1.30 pm for the Committee stage of the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill.

Sitting suspended.