Boris Johnson has said he wants to reduce the 2-metre rule for physical distancing despite the government’s chief medical officer saying it would need to stay in place for the whole epidemic.
The prime minister struck an optimistic note about easing the lockdown further after demands from Tory MPs for a review of the 2-metre rule to help pubs, restaurants, cafes and other venues to reopen profitably.
“We are seeing continuous falls in this disease, in deaths, in incidents,” he told the daily press conference in Downing Street. “That’s why we’ve been able to take the very cautious steps that we have.
“We want to take some more steps to unlock our society and try to get back to as normal as possible. Eventually I would like to do such things as reducing the 2-metre rule, for instance.”
However, Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical adviser, took a much more cautious tone, stressing that the UK needed to move very slowly given the current infection rate.
Whitty listed a series of measures including hand washing, “good cough etiquette”, the use of face coverings and the 2-metre rule that are “going to carry on really for as long as this epidemic continues”.
Vallance said there was still a risk of a second wave and highlighted other countries where there had been subsequent outbreaks after physical distancing measures were eased.
He said there could be 8,000 new cases of coronavirus a day in the UK and there was “relatively little room for manoeuvre” in easing the lockdown.
The World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on face masks has remained consistent during the coronavirus pandemic. It has stuck to the line that masks are for healthcare workers – not the public.
“Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including Covid-19. However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” the WHO has stated.
Nevertheless, as some countries have eased lockdown conditions, they have been making it mandatory to wear face coverings outside, as a way of trying to inhibit spread of the virus. This is in the belief that the face covering will prevent people who cough and sneeze ejecting the virus any great distance.
There is no robust scientific evidence – in the form of trials – that ordinary masks block the virus from infecting people who wear them. There is also concerns the public will not understand how to use a mask properly, and may get infected if they come into contact with the virus when they take it off and then touch their faces.
Also underlying the WHO’s concerns is the shortage of high-quality protective masks for frontline healthcare workers.
Nevertheless, masks do have a role when used by people who are already infected. It is accepted that they can block transmission to other people. Given that many people with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms for the first days after they are infected, masks clearly have a potential role to play, especially on crowded public transport as people return to work.
Sarah Boseley Health editor
“We have relatively large numbers still not coming down fast. That gives relatively little room for manoeuvre. We have to tread very cautiously,” he said.
He said the number of deaths was coming down “but it is not coming down as fast as we would like it to come down”.
Whitty is one of those responsible for having kept the UK’s coronavirus alert level at four, rather than three, meaning the current level of infection is still high or rising exponentially.
But he defended the government’s move to ease some lockdown measures, such as the partial reopening of schools.
“Clearly there’s a very complicated balancing act for society in terms of the possibility of increasing the transmission on the one hand and depriving children of their education on the other,” he said.
“This is a very hard balancing act but this is where we’re trying to, as a society, walk between two risks, a risk to education and a risk to health. And the rates of transmission are now much lower than they were at the point when schools were closed.
“I fully understand, as everyone fully understands, people wanting to think this through but ... the biggest concern is going to be the health of their children and this is a disease that can affect children but is very unlikely to compared to adults.”
But he also said it was the “unanimous view” of the UK’s four chief medical officers that the coronavirus alert level should remain at four.
He told the Downing Street press conference: “We’re trending downwards. The alert level is a clear four but with a direction of travel down - that was the unanimous view of the four chief medical officers on the advice, the independent advice, of the Joint Biosecurity Centre.”
Several MPs, including former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, have called for a reduction in the 2-metre rule to save jobs and help the hospitality sector reopen.
Johnson had asked members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to review the guidance but No 10 said on Tuesday the government believed the 2-metre rule should remain in place for now.
Questioned about the economic impact of the lockdown, Johnson acknowledged on Wednesday that there would be “many, many job losses” but promised the government would take an “activist” approach to reviving the economy.
“We will be just as interventionist in the next phase, investing in the UK economy, investing in infrastructure, taking our country forward so that we bounce back as sharply and decisively as we can,” he said.
He said he believed it was “vital” to ensure young people who were likely to be the hardest hit “should be guaranteed an apprenticeship”.