A decision over the two-metre rule looms

A social distancing sign in Liverpool Image copyright Reuters

This is a very tricky moment for the prime minister.

One minister admitted the government was in a "rough patch - everyone's a bit angry having been locked up for too long".

Whether it's the messy patchwork of the return of schools in England, mounting criticisms of the way decisions were taken at the start of the pandemic, or the dawning realisation (perhaps overdue) in Westminster that the economy is in very dire straits despite the balance sheet-busting actions the Treasury has taken.

Recent polls show confidence in the government has slid down.

It's worth saying some of that is political gravity after a period of pretty astonishing levels of support that could never last.

And, of course, we are four years from the next general election.

But poll after poll suggests the public's mood has soured, and politicians who tell you they don't pay any attention to those surveys may well have two fingers crossed behind their back.

And there is really tangible frustration among the government's own MPs that has built over the last few weeks.

One former cabinet minister described Number 10's approach as "lurch and retreat", with Downing Street having "no strategic sense of where they are going".

A less diplomatic senior MP had one more robust, and unprintable word to describe the Tories' position.

There is a growing hope though among government ministers that at least part of the way of turning the page would be to relax the two-metre keep your distance rule.

The prime minister himself has made it clear that he would like to do that if it's possible.

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Media captionOne and two metre social distancing - what does it look like?

Ministers had promised to review it, and Downing Street is taking a look, involving the government's scientists and crucially too, those charged with handling the economy.

One minister today seemed confident the rule would be changed, and told me "very soon".

After all, other countries are asking their citizens to keep apart, but with smaller gaps, as my colleague David Shukman's explained here.

More and more MPs believe that relaxing the rule would be the crucial piece of the jigsaw.

Schools would find it easier to reopen to many more children, bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants that simply won't be able to function as businesses might have a chance again; using public transport if you only have to be say one metre apart seems a different prospect, and the transformation of workplaces becomes less dramatic.

And if one metre is deemed safe in Denmark, France, or Hong Kong, then why not here?

First off, the disease is shrinking, but it's not disappearing fast.

There is still public anxiety about the infection, and that crucial R rate is only just under the danger level of one.

The risk of relaxing the rule may be small, but it does exist.

And the government's top medics have said publicly that they don't think the two-metre rule should go.

To change it therefore would be to go against the advice - "the science" that ministers have so often relied on referring to in difficult moments.

Of course there is no such one thing as "the science".

Science is as full of dispute as politics, even though the methods and practices are chalk and cheese.

And ultimately the decisions about handling the crisis have been made by ministers after receiving the scientists' advice.

But the decision over two metres is looming and it's one that Boris Johnson can't ignore.

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