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A leading coronavirus expert today backed “some flexibility” in the two-metre rule used in Britain and other countries as they try to kick-start their stricken economies.

Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation special Covid-19 envoy for Europe, said there was no “strict rules” on a particular distance required for social distancing.

“All we are going to say is that the evidence that we have seen suggests the closer you are to somebody who has got the disease, the more likely you are to get it,” Dr Nabarro, co-director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, told LBC Radio.

“So please try to at least be one metre, if you can be two metres great, but we realise there is going to have to be some flexibility.”

Asked what he believes Boris Johnson should now do to balance public health and the economy, he stressed the need to do “everything possible” as the lockdown is eased to protect workers in “service roles” such as bus drivers, shop staff and cleaners, so they can maintain “some distance”.

He also emphasised the need for a “comprehensive package” of measures, particular the use of face coverings when in public places, as well as distancing, and isolating if ill with possible Covid-19 symptoms.

“The distancing is much more important when we are in confined spaces,” he added.

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“When we are out in the open, the likelihood of spread is so much less. So we can apply some quite good common sense here.”

The WHO guidance recommends a distance of at least one metre.

“Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the Covid-19 virus if the person has the disease,” it adds.

Several countries have adopted a one-metre distance, including France, China, Denmark, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Singapore, South Korea 1.4 metres, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal 1.5 metres, America 1.8 metres, and the UK, Spain and Canada two metres.

Mr Johnson has stressed that he is keeping Britain’s two-metre rule under “constant review”, with huge pressure from Tory MPs and businesses to relax it so pubs and other parts of the hospitality industry, more shops, and more classes in schools can be re-opened.

However, the Government’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has insisted that the two-metre rule should stay “for as long as this epidemic continues”, with the Covid-19 death toll already at around 52,000.

Mr Johnson has signalled that he wants to ease it when the level of coronavirus infections falls further in the UK.

Health minister Edward Argar told LBC: “There is a scientific debate here and it’s about striking that balance between where we want to be in terms of health protection and reducing that risk, and avoiding a devastating second wave which would be much more challenging for our economy than the two-metre rule at this moment, and again continuing to keep it under review because it does have an impact on those businesses.

“Ultimately, advisers advise..ministers decide..and the Prime Minister and other senior ministers, with this evidence, will continue to review that and will make decisions based on scientific evidence.”