PM comes under pressure to reduce social distancing as lockdown damages labour market

16 June 2020, 05:59

The PM is coming under pressure from within his own party
The PM is coming under pressure from within his own party. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Boris Johnson is facing renewed pressure to reduce coronavirus lockdown restrictions as Government figures show the damage caused to the UK labour market.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published on Tuesday, but hours before a planned meeting between the Prime Minister and his top team.

The coronavirus lockdown employment figures show the downturn had yet to feed through fully into unemployment thanks to the job retention scheme but there was a sharp drop in the number of paid employees, down by 2.1 per cent or 612,000 in May compared with March, and a huge increase in benefit claims.

The plunging economy and continued restrictions on businesses have caused some Tory grandees to call on Mr Johnson to further ease the restrictions which are already in place.

Over the weekend the PM promised to review rules around two-metre social distancing rules which could be relaxed to pave the way for further businesses to reopen.

Downing Street has said it could not guarantee the results would be published before July 4, when the hospitality industry is due to reopen.

A further 38 people died in the 24 hours up to 5pm on Sunday after contracting Covid-19, with the UK death toll thought to have passed 52,000.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former Conservative Party leader William Hague said the latest batch of figures were likely to "represent a personal catastrophe for hundreds of thousands of people" and that the lockdown was a "disaster (that) cannot under any circumstances be repeated".

But Lord Hague urged ministers to step in and save the hospitality industry from "weeks (of) agonising" over a decision on cutting the two-metre enforcement - the gap people in the UK are advised to stay away from each other to prevent the spread of the virus - and cut it immediately.

The former foreign secretary said it was "not necessary to have a two-metre separation between people to keep the virus in retreat where it is already at a low level" and cited the experience of the likes of Denmark, France and Germany where the "recommended distance is shorter" than in the UK.

The British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), a trade body representing brewers and pubs, has demanded Number 10 give a clear date for when pubs can open their doors, including what social distancing guidance businesses can expect to have to follow.

Previously, the CEO of the BBPA told LBC that up to 15,000 pubs could close permanently if the Government did not provide a path back to business.

Scores of MPs, including former Cabinet ministers, used a debate in the House of Commons to urge the Government to announce its review decision before July 4.

Ex-business secretary Greg Clark asked why having a restriction shorter than two metres in other countries was "right for them but wrong for us", while Commons defence committee chair Tobias Ellwood said it was "now time for the Government to decide", not in two weeks.

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Meanwhile, customers turned out in force on Monday as England's retail parks, high streets and shopping centres reopened after a three-month shutdown, with footfall rising by more than a third on last week.

Long lines were seen at Primark stores across the country, with dozens of keen shoppers waiting outside branches in Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool and Nottingham due to restrictions on how many people could enter the shops at one time to respect social distancing.

A petition has garnered 3,500 signatures after calling for popular shopping destination Bicester Village to be shut down until numbers can be better controlled after social media depicted hectic scenes in the Oxfordshire town.

Petition founder Laura Wicks said she was "disgusted to see the hundreds of people squashed into the street like coronavirus never happened".

But while there was a week-on-week increase in retail footfall, data released by retail analyst Springboard indicated that, despite the busy scenes, footfall across all of England's high streets on Monday was still down 45.3% compared to last year when no restrictions were in place.