Boris Johnson has been urged by senior Conservatives to consider relaxing the two-metre social distancing rule within a fortnight to prevent large-scale redundancies.
Greg Clark, the chairman of the Commons science committee, has written to the Prime Minister asking him to “urgently review” the rule and consider whether a reduction to 1.5 metres may be possible in light of newly available evidence.
Mr Clark said he hoped any change would be implemented before non-essential shops reopen on June 15, pointing out that Mr Johnson had himself expressed hope this week that the distance could be shortened.
With Rishi Sunak on Friday confirming that firms will have to start paying towards the costs of furloughed staff in August, there is mounting concern that thousands of hospitality employees unable to return to work could be laid off unless the two-metre rule is relaxed imminently.
Speaking to The Telegraph beforehand, Mr Clark said: “The difference between two metres and 1.5 metres may seem small but it can be the difference between people being able to go to work and losing their jobs.”
David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said that changes to the furlough scheme must be implemented “in-step” with a relaxation of social distancing rules.
He added that firms would face a "denial of natural justice” if they were forced to start paying towards staff costs again whilst remaining shut under the two-metre rule.
“What will happen is that they will shut, meaning the furlough money is wasted, and there will be no tax revenue from that business,” he said.
In his letter, Mr Clark, the former business secretary, cites a new paper released by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), which acknowledges that it may be possible to “enable distancing at less than two metres” in some areas if other Covid-19 control measures are implemented.
Highlighting sections of the paper which suggest that droplet exposure and infection risk “fall sharply at 1.5 metres”, Mr Clark said the document does not seem to “establish the need for a recommended distance of two metres.”
“This evidence is consistent with the guidance of many countries to maintain social distancing of 1.5 metres (such as in Germany, Australia or the Netherlands),” he continued.
“Some administrations that have had success in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, such as those in Hong Kong and Singapore, even recommend a distance of 1 metre—as does the World Health Organisation.”
On Friday evening Downing Street sources pointed out that evidence published by Sage was not the same as the final recommendations it provided to ministers, adding that the Prime Minister had made his position on the two-metre rule clear earlier this week.
It came as France announced that it would reopen bars and restaurants outside of Paris under a one-metre social distancing rule.
The decision has reignited pressure from business leaders and MPs for Mr Johnson to follow suit, with Luke Johnson, the former chairman of Pizza Express, stating that “any delay is pointless.”
Asked if he agreed with Mr Johnson that the two-metre rule should be reduced on Friday, Mr Sunak told the Downing Street press conference: “I agree with the Prime Minister. I think what he said was, we will keep it under review.”
His comments were echoed by Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England's National Medical Director, added: “It’s not an absolute, two metres is not absolute. There is an increasing amount of risk the closer you are to an individual, and of course the longer you are close to somebody […] There are a number of other mitigations that can be taken around that two metre rule."
During the conference, Mr Sunak also announced that firms using the job retention scheme will have to start paying National Insurance and tax contributions for staff in August, rising to 10 per cent of furloughed wages in September and 20 per cent in October.
However, while the taper is designed to coincide with the economy gradually restarting, leaders from the hospitality sector have warned that the majority of bars and restaurants will not be able to reopen while the two-metre rule remains.
Maintaining the rule is also likely to cripple theatres and cultural venues, while a number of manufacturing firms also say they will be unable to operate at anything over 1.5 metres.
With firms required to notify employees of any planned redundancies 45 days in advance, there are now growing fears that companies will begin laying off employees in the run up to August unless the rules are relaxed.
Mr Davis said: “If it is impossible for a business to come back into effective operation - pub, cafe, restaurant - it’s not reasonable to expect it to have deep pockets to keep going.
“It’s an exercise in common sense economics: you must tie the reduction of the furlough scheme to the actions being taken.”
Mr Davis also urged the Prime Minister to look at the experience of other European countries which have adopted a shorter social distance without a spike in infections.
They include Germany, which operates social distancing of 1.5 metres, and Denmark, which recently dropped down to one metre, in line with the recommendations of the World Health Organisation.
Separately, papers released by Sage this week suggest that the two metre rule could be relaxed in certain areas, providing additional measures were implemented to mitigate the risks.
They include research by Sage’s Environmental and Modelling Group, updated on May 2, which states that the two-metre rule should be “seen as a ballpark guide to distancing rather than an absolute value.”
It goes on to list a series of steps that could be taken to mitigate the risks below two-metres, adding that face coverings, ventilation, increased cleaning and physical partitioning are “possible options that could enable this”.