Museums and galleries in England are to be allowed to re-open from 4 July, in the latest move by Boris Johnson to restore normal life after the three-month coronavirus lockdown.
But, as the government moves to rescue the arts and culture, they are likely to be ordered to introduce one-way systems, spaced queueing, increased ventilation, pre-booked tickets and the wearing of face coverings.
At the same time, the prime minister has taken the axe to the two-metre social distancing rule, as he also throws open the doors of England’s pubs, restaurants and hairdressers after the lockdown.
In a shake-up demanded by Tory MPs that will delight business chiefs, drinkers, foodies and anyone needing a haircut, Mr Johnson will confirm the changes will all take effect from 4 July.
The lockdown easing for the arts and culture will also be warmly welcomed by the hospitality and entertainment industries, which have feared catastrophic financial losses and closures.
Mr Johnson is also expected to announce an expansion of “social bubbles” in which people will be allowed to mix freely, in changes aimed at helping more children see their grandparents.
But the prime minister will make clear that the public must continue to follow social distancing guidelines to keep the coronavirus under control and any easing of restrictions could be reversed if the virus risks running out of control.
“We are only able to move forward this week because the vast majority of people have taken steps to control the virus,” a Number 10 source said.
“But the more we open up, the more important it is that everyone follows the social distancing guidelines. We will not hesitate to reverse these steps if it is necessary to stop the virus running out of control.”
The 4 July scrapping of coronavirus lockdown restrictions – already being hailed as “independence day” and “super Saturday” – will be approved by the cabinet before Mr Johnson makes a Commons statement to MPs.
But there will be conditions.
Under a new “one-metre-plus” plan, it is thought Mr Johnson will emphasise that people must remain two metres apart unless they are wearing a mask or there are other mitigating reasons.
And pubs and restaurants are likely to be very different from pre-lockdown when they reopen, taking the names and details of customers, erecting screens between tables and using throw-away menus.
The changes come after a day when it was announced that there were only 958 new cases of coronavirus and 15 deaths, prompting Health Secretary Matt Hancock to declare: “The virus is in retreat.”
Ahead of the cabinet meeting to approve the changes, the ending of the two-metre rule was signed off at a meeting of senior ministers who make up the government’s COVID-19 strategy committee.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told Sky News: “We want to look at how we can get the hospitality, tourism and leisure industries back up and running in a safe way for people.
“That’s what we’re looking at this morning. There’ll be some announcements from the prime minister later today.”
On the future of the two-metre rule, Mr Lewis said “we’ve got to get the balance right” between “making sure that if we’re going to reopen businesses they can do so in a way that they can actually function, but also at the forefront of our minds is people’s health and safety”.
Commenting on the announcement Jane Pendlebury, the CEO of HOSPA, the Hospitality Professionals Association said:
“Having a definite opening date means hospitality can finally see a way forward – with the relaxation of the social distancing rule a huge relief for hoteliers and others in the industry.
The uninitiated may see a hotel room as sufficiently socially distant (notwithstanding the cleaning logistics), but the situation is far more complicated than this. Without the ancillary services which people expect, such as the restaurant, bar and spa, hotels are going to struggle to attract custom once the novelty of simply getting away post-lockdown wears off.
Reducing the social distancing measures then will have a huge impact. To outline the difference it makes, revenue management modelling suggests that 2-metre social distancing, which effectively creates a 4-metre diameter, reduces restaurant revenue to as little as 7% – a non-viable return given the factors involved.
This changes considerably though as the distance is reduced. The proposed 1-metre distancing, equating to a 2-metre diameter of space, allows for around 45% of revenue. While this is still a huge reduction, if hoteliers and other restaurateurs are creative in their approach, they can work to increase those margins by implementing a variety of measures. This, at least gives them a chance to head in the right direction, enabling the opportunity to develop a workable service.
Of course, safety is paramount and our priority is opening safely, for both guests and staff, but this offers the industry, if not exactly an open door to a return, then certainly a workable margin. No doubt there’ll be muted celebrations in hotels all around the country as we look to start moving forward again.”
Joss Croft, CEO, of tourism association UKinbound also commented: “Today’s announcement that pubs, restaurants, hotels and attractions can officially open on the 4th July will come as a huge relief to businesses across the tourism and hospitality industry, who have earnt very little revenue since the beginning of March. Reducing social distancing from two metres to one will also ensure that many more businesses will be able to viably reopen at the start of next month.