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UK social distancing: give or take a metre

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The debate for the future of UK foodservice is taking place in Whitehall. Jacquetta Picton looks at the arguments surrounding safe social distancing

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has called for an urgent review of the two-metre social distancing requirement in England. The UK, along with Spain and Canada, has the most generous physical distance limit in the world. Most countries have imposed limits of 1.5 or even one metre – as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The reason for the review in is dropping infection rates and the dire straits some foodservice operators face. It is reckoned that one third of pubs could reopen with a two-metre distance. This would jump to three quarters while maintaining a one metre distance.

“From a commercial point of view, it is important for social distancing to be reduced to one metre,” says Matthew Merritt-Harrison FCSI, chair of FCSI UK and Ireland and managing partner of Merritt-Harrison Catering Consultancy in Guildford. “However, from a health point of view there is an element of risk. A two-metre distance allows for a margin of error. At one metre there is no margin for error.”

Keeping to the limits

Some operators have noted this. A pub landlady in Chelmsford Essex says she is quite happy to keep to the two-metre rule, her premises are large enough to allow this and she is concerned that customers, especially once drink has been taken, will tend to forget the limits.

Without doubt restaurants may well look a little different when they first reopen to the public. Apart from the greater space between tables, staff may well be togged up in some form of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks or visors and gloves. “The biggest issue in the sector is not service of food – which is manageable – but seating, meaning that on many sites it can only be a takeway grab ‘n go or even a delivered service, which limits its appeal,’ says Chris Stern FCSI, managing director, Stern Consultancy.

“However, there are some locations where this can be managed and we are seeing a full staff dining service, with very little difference to the pre Covid-19 situation – self-service is the main feature to have disappeared.”

The hospitality industry is looking for clear guidance. Speaking to the BBC, hotelier Alex Polizzi noted: “It’s not known if 4 July means any of my businesses can operate. Our restaurants are only profitable if they are full. How do we serve people at a distance of two metres? The only guidance available is for takeaways and I am not geared up for that.”

Stopping the decline

Although the two-metre rule is easy to understand, albeit difficult to implement in most establishments, it ignores other steps that could be taken to mitigate risk. Restaurants with large terraces and patios will be able to operate, even with a severe impact on the bottom line. Smaller establishments, or those offering a counter service, will probably be unable to operate.

The prime minister told MPs at the liaison committee last month: “My own hope is that as we make progress in getting the virus down, in reducing the incidence, we will be able to reduce that distance, which I think will be particularly valuable in transport and clearly the hospitality sector.”

With the UK economy shrinking 20% in April, ministers think the easing of the two-metre rule could be crucial in offsetting further decline. Reports seem to indicate that ministers rather than scientific advisors will make the ultimate decision.

Jacquetta Picton