Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to reduce the two-metre social-distancing rule, even as a senior figure at the World Health Organisation cautions against further easing lockdown measures in England.
The competing visions came as non-essential shops across England were due to reopen on Monday for the first time since the lockdown was ordered in March.
Retailers offering clothes, toys and books, and tailors and photography studios will be allowed to open, but restaurants and bars must stay shut.
Mr Johnson has suggested coronavirus regulations requiring people to stay two-metres apart in public spaces could be relaxed as infection rates fall.
“People should shop, and shop with confidence,” Mr Johnson said on a trip to Westfield shopping centre mall in east London. “But they should of course observe the rules on social distancing and do it as safely as possible.”
The World Health Organisation's regional European director, Hans Kluge, warned in an interview with the Guardian, that lockdown measures should not be eased further until England's contact-tracing system has been proven to work effectively.
"Contact tracing is key especially as the UK starts to relax the social and physical distancing measures. There has to be a robust track-and-trace system in place of operation," Mr Kluge told the Guardian.
He said the tracking in England of nearly 32,000 contacts of 8,000 infected people was encouraging and but the system still needs to show it is capable of “aggressively’ tracking infections.
“Whether it’s one or two metre is less important than the fact that people will adhere to the measures, to the physical distancing, to the handwashing, to the respiratory hygiene, and that they understand that it’s not over. This is the key issue,” Mr Kluge said.
Mr Johnson’s comments on the two-metre guidelines will be welcomed by his Conservative Party and some industry leaders, including in retail and hospitality, who fear social distancing will kill jobs and end companies.
“As we get the numbers down... your chances of being two metres, one meter or even a foot away from somebody who has the virus are obviously going down statistically, so you start to build some more margin for manoeuvre, and we’ll be looking at that and keeping it under constant review,” he said.
Finance Secretary Rishi Sunak told the BBC the prime minister was launching a “comprehensive review” of the social-distancing measure, which has “an enormous impact” on the profitability of businesses.
Mr Sunak said household finances had been protected during the pandemic lockdown and that people should now feel confident that “it is safe to go” shopping when non-essential stores reopen from Monday.
“The issue is not so much that they don’t have the cash because they’ve been saving over the last few months, it’s whether they have the confidence,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
“We’ve all been sitting at home, we’ve been worried about going out, and I think it’s important now that people do have that confidence to go out.”