NORMAN LAMONT: Ditch the two-metre rule to rescue our economy
31st May 2020
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Ditch the two-metre rule to rescue our economy: Former Chancellor NORMAN LAMONT argues Priti Patel’s suggestion that social distancing is here to stay is alarming and unlikely to be feasible

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Today the headlines focus on coronavirus, but that will soon change. In six months’ time, I fear they will be about jobs and employment. And they will make for grim reading.

In the United States, unemployment as a result of the virus has risen to between 15 and 20 per cent of the workforce: That’s at least 22million jobless – perhaps as many as 30million. It’s an economic catastrophe threatening to dwarf even the spectre of the Great Depression.

Right now the unemployment figures are much lower in Europe and the UK, but that is only because around 40million Europeans are in furlough schemes.

Social distancing strictures affect many industries as the two-metre restriction makes it almost impossible to use public transport. Without it, firms in all sectors won’t survive as their staff can’t get to work. Shoppers are pictured lining up outside a supermarket in Leicester

Already it is being mooted that Rishi Sunak is working on an emergency Budget to save two million jobs. Such an undertaking will no doubt prove immensely tricky and, as a former Chancellor, I don’t envy him. 

To avoid devastating mass unemployment, the single most important measure we must take – as soon as possible – is to reduce the two-metre social distancing rule to one metre.

More importantly, in the not-too-distant future we should abolish social distancing completely. To hear Home Secretary Priti Patel suggest last month that it is here to stay was alarming and unlikely to be feasible.

I recognise that the Government faces an agonising decision over whether to lift restrictions and risk a second spike of coronavirus deaths. 

But the longer the lockdown lasts, the greater the economic damage will be – and the more difficult the choice to end it. It appears probable the Bank of England, in the scenario its Governor Andrew Bailey revealed recently, has been too optimistic.

To avoid devastating mass unemployment, the single most important measure we must take – as soon as possible – is to reduce the two-metre social distancing rule to one metre. A social distancing sign is pictured in Tesco

There will be no fast recovery, and we are either at or very near the place where the benefits of lockdown are outweighed by the costs to the economy and other health risks: From domestic violence to depression, other mental illness and alcoholism, as well as complications in ailments where tests and treatment have been dangerously postponed.

Meanwhile, the Government claims it has been following ‘the science’ – but these are political decisions. And so it must face up to the inherent, fundamental conflict between a policy of social distancing and the need to protect a massive number of jobs.

Social distancing strictures affect many industries as the two-metre restriction makes it almost impossible to use public transport. Without it, firms in all sectors won’t survive as their staff can’t get to work. 

The hospitality industry is where a lot of people work, earn and spend money that ripples through the economy.

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, only 20 to 30 per cent of premises will be able to open at a sustainable level – not breaking even but managing to keep the doors open. A boarded up and temporarily closed pub is pictured above

It is also the largest private sector employer, with 3.2million people working in it, 2.7million of whom are currently furloughed. 

In employment terms it is bigger than the financial services industry or the automotive, aerospace and pharmaceutical industries combined.

But it is impossible to imagine how hospitality can work with rigid social distancing. Where people are kept two metres apart, many businesses will lose about 60 per cent of their capacity. 

According to the British Beer and Pub Association, only 20 to 30 per cent of premises will be able to open at a sustainable level – not breaking even but managing to keep the doors open.

Reducing the distance to 1.5 metres raises this level to 50 per cent of businesses; at one metre, it hits 70 per cent.

A lot of the Government’s scientific advisers are nervous, saying it is risky to be relaxing the rules. 

I am not for one minute suggesting their advice should be ignored or automatically overridden.

But the onus is on the advisers to explain why it is that, while Britons must stay two metres apart, the World Health Organisation recommends one metre – as do many other European countries, acting on their scientists’ advice.

Already it is being mooted that Rishi Sunak is working on an emergency Budget to save two million jobs. Such an undertaking will no doubt prove immensely tricky and, as a former Chancellor, I don’t envy him

Professor Robert Dingwall of Nottingham Trent University, an adviser to the Government, is one of those who questions the two-metre rule. 

He suggested the distance is based on ‘fragile evidence’, and was imposed as the Government thought the public couldn’t be trusted to obey a one-metre rule. The distance was doubled as a precautionary principle.

Lockdown cannot defeat the virus – it can only slow it or suppress it to buy time for a vaccine to be developed. Likewise, monetary and fiscal policy can achieve very little when the Government has closed down large parts of the economy.

The longer the lockdown lasts, the more dire the economic prospects become, and the tougher the choices for the Government will be. We must face up to it now.

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