Yorkshire Post column – Relaxing 2-metre rule essential for regional economy and our children’s future
June 17, 2020
While high streets reopen this week, the social distancing being applied in-store will serve as a firm reminder that everyday activities will not be returning to normal anytime soon.
Of course, we must be ready to reverse the current gradual relaxation of restrictions if there are signs of an infection surge. However, alongside this vigilance, it is increasingly imperative that we adjust distancing rules to allow for normal life to resume as far as is possible, alongside careful shielding of the vulnerable.
As the initial wave recedes, we need think about how we can live with the threat of the virus, not just exist in fear of it. Until the discovery of a vaccine, coronavirus will remain a risk that has to be managed, and readers will appreciate we cannot simply put the economy or our children’s education into suspended animation for however long this takes.
The 2-metre social distancing rule is the prime example of a measure that was essential as we faced the full force of the virus, but now risks being a cure that is worse than the disease, and must be relaxed in line with scientific evidence indicating this can be safely done. Not to do so risks destroying the substantial hospitality and tourism industry, which supports so many of our region’s communities, also damaging the whole supply chain including processers, wholesalers and farmers, and preventing our children returning to school for many months yet. One food wholesaler in my constituency has already lost 80% of their trade, and many parents of primary school-age children will already have learnt the 2-metre rule makes it impossible to reopen primaries to all pupils before the summer, given the size of classrooms.
Readers should be in no doubt of the seriousness of the economic blow. The economy shrank 20.4% in April, which current estimates suggest could see unemployment in North Yorkshire surge to 18.9%, and 17,500 jobs going in my own City of York. Besides destroying livelihoods, recession on this scale will risk undermining our ability to finance the ongoing fight against the virus, as government budgets come under pressure from dwindling tax returns, and lengthening dole queues.
With this prospect, we need our region’s shuttered cafes, pubs, eateries and tourist attractions, that provide the lifeblood of so many Yorkshire communities, open as soon as possible, but the reality is that a huge number will simply not be viable if they have to drastically restrict their customer numbers by applying the current 2-metre rule from 4th July, and will either remain closed to go to the wall, taking large numbers of jobs with them.
With 2-metres, venues will only be able to make 30% of normal income, a rate of return which will simply not be sustainable for the overwhelming majority, while a reduction to 1-metre would allow for 60-75% of normal income to be generated.
If 2-metres was the only safe way to reopen businesses, it might nevertheless be judged necessary for a while longer, but the decision of most neighbouring countries to adopt a lower requirement suggests health can be safeguarded while the economy is restarted. Only Spain is currently sticking to 2-metres with us, while Italy, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Portugal and Greece are using 1.5, with France and Denmark opting for just 1 metre, which is also recommended by the World Health Organisation
We simply cannot afford to wait until the reality of hollowed-out high streets, folding businesses and surging unemployment jolts us into action, because by then it will be too late, and Yorkshire will already have suffered serious economic and social scarring, that could take years to heal.
Dropping down from 2-metres is also essential to a full reopening of schools from September. Many school leaders have suggested that education can only be part-time if current distancing is maintained, while a shift to 1-metre, together with staggered lunchtimes and one-way routing could plausibly allow for all or most pupils to return.
As a father of two school-age children, I share the conflicted emotions of most parents, balancing potential health risk against the damaging impact of a break in learning, but feel we now owe it to the next generation to get them safely back in the classroom. Prolonged closure enforced by 2-metre distancing also has a clear regressive impact, on average affecting most those children from lower income families, and those who have been born with fewer educational opportunities.
Having rightly focused on the needs of the elderly for much of this emergency, we now also have to consider those of the next generation. We don’t better protect our children against coronavirus by setting them up to inherit a wrecked regional economy, while ensuring they have less education. For Yorkshire to rebuild in the new normal, the government must axe 2-metres without undue delay.