Social distancing: Could one metre rule boost NI hotels?

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Mr Wolsey’s Merchant Hotel is one of Belfast’s most luxurious

Bill Wolsey knows something about trading in times of adversity.

He opened a £16m extension to his flagship Merchant Hotel in 2010, a time when Northern Ireland was mired in a gruelling recession.

He worked through that and was ultimately able to grow his business. Now he’s worried about how the entire hotel sector is supposed to operate in a time of social distancing.

Hotels in Northern Ireland got a target reopening date this week – 20 July.

As it stands they will have to operate using two metre social distancing.

“If it’s two metres, we are going to be operating at roughly 40% – 50% capacity,”says Mr Wolsey.

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Mr Wolsey says he hopes Stormont will look at a change to one metre

“If it’s one metre it’s going to be around 70% capacity. The difference is huge. We’re hoping Stormont is going to look at the one metre.

“We’re not irresponsible people. We can be given the opportunity to do this and there’s evidence to show it’s safe.”

The World Health Organization says that a distance of 1m is safe.

Some countries, such as France and Denmark, have adopted this guidance while others, including the UK, have gone further.

The Stormont Economy Minister Diane Dodds is open to moving the Northern Ireland guidance to one metre.

This week she said it was something the Executive will “have to give thought to”.

“I have listened to and understand the arguments and I understand that people must make their businesses viable,” she told the BBC.

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Economy Minister Diane Dodds said reducing the social distance is something the Executive will “have to give thought to”.

“Right across Europe there are different views on this.

“Some countries like the UK and Republic of Ireland have adopted a two metre rule, some Scandinavian have adopted a one metre rule.

“We’ve got to do what’s right for Northern Ireland, what’s right for people’s lives and safety and what’s right to help us get business up and running.”

She will now have to make her argument at the Executive table.

Hospitality staff will need to be persuaded too. Trade unions are suspicious.

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Businesses in other sectors, like garden centres, that have already reopened have implemented the two metre rule

Neill Moore, the Unite hospitality organiser, says an attempt is being made to bounce the Executive into shifting its position.

“There is no possible health-science basis for eroding this protection – it is a demand designed to increase profit at the cost of lives and must be resisted.”

‘Powerful intervention’

Into this debate came a new study published in The Lancet medical journal.

It is a review and meta-analysis of more than 170 existing pieces of research.

It found that social distancing is a powerful intervention for reducing the spread of coronavirus.

It suggests that if a person has Covid-19, standing close to them results in a 13% chance of infection.

But with one metre social distancing the risk of infection goes down to 2.6% while increasingly the distance to two metres halves the risk again to 1.3%.

The study concludes: “The results of our current review support the implementation of a policy of physical distancing of at least 1m and, if feasible, 2m or more.”

The key part of that sentence may the words “if feasible.”

Does it just mean practically feasible or will economic feasibility be considered too?

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