The social distancing rule will be cut from two metres to "one metre plus" in England from 4 July, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said in a move to help the hospitality sector reopen.

Under new changes announced by Mr Johnson, indoor gatherings involving two separate households will be permitted, including the possibility of visiting reopened pubs and restaurants, but social distancing will need to be maintained. 

The two-metre rule will be eased, replaced with a "one-metre plus" measure, with the protection offered by the physical distance enhanced by other mitigation measures, such as the use of face coverings, increased hygiene or layout changes in premises. 

Mr Johnson told the House of Commons earlier today that progress in tackling the virus meant steps could be taken to "safely ease the lockdown", but "caution will remain our watchword". 

He acknowledged that the two-metre rule "effectively makes life impossible for large parts of our economy even without other restrictions". 

He added: "We're today publishing guidance on how business can reduce the risk by taking certain steps to protect workers and customers. 

"And these include, for instance, avoiding face-to-face seating by changing office layouts, reducing the number of people in enclosed spaces, improving ventilation, using protective screens and face coverings, closing non-essential social spaces, providing hand sanitiser, changing shift patterns so that staff work in set teams." 

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference this afternoon, Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, said there was a risk the coronavirus could start to increase in its spread if restrictions involved with the "one metre plus" rules were not followed.

He said: "A lot of the changes are about emphasising things that we can do and it is really critical that individuals and firms take these really seriously.

"Because if we don't take them seriously then chains of transmission between households will be reestablished."

Prof Whitty added: "To be really clear, it is absolutely critical that every individual, every household and every firm takes these precautions seriously.

"If that does not happen, we will go back to a situation where transmission starts to rise again."

Prof Whitty predicted that people could have to cope with Covid-19 into 2021.

He said: "I would be surprised and delighted if we weren't in this current situation through the winter and into next spring.

"I expect there to be a significant amount of coronavirus circulating at least into that time and I think it is going to be quite optimistic that for science to come fully to the rescue over that kind of time-frame.

"But I have an absolute confidence in the capacity of science to overcome infectious diseases.

"It has done that repeatedly and it will do that for this virus, whether that is by drugs, vaccines or indeed other things that may come into play.

"For medium to long term, I'm optimistic. But for the short to medium term, until this time next year, certainly I think we should be planning for this for what I consider to be the long haul into 2021."

UK deaths due to Covid-19 tops 54,000

The further easing of restrictions in England comes as the number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK has passed 54,000, according to the latest available data. 

The total includes new figures published by the Office for National Statistics, which show that 48,866 deaths involving Covid-19 had occurred in England and Wales up to 12 June (and had been registered by 20 June). 

Figures published last week by the National Records for Scotland showed that 4,070 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in Scotland up to 14 June. 

The latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, also published last week, showed 802 deaths involving Covid-19 had occurred in Northern Ireland up to 12 June (and had been registered up to 17 June). 

Together these figures mean that so far 53,738 deaths have been registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, including suspected cases. 

Between 13 and 21 June, a further 317 hospital patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 died in England, according to NHS England; while a further 29 people in hospital and care homes who had tested positive for Covid-19 died in Wales, according to Public Health Wales. 

And in Northern Ireland, a further five people who had tested positive for Covid-19 died between 13 and 21 June, according to the Northern Ireland Department of Health. 

These add up to a further 351 deaths that have occurred since 13 June, and together with the total figure of 53,738 registered deaths, means the overall Covid-19 death toll for the UK is now at 54,089. 

Details of deaths that took place in Scotland since the cut-off point for the latest registration data (14 June) are not available, because the Scottish government does not report deaths by the date on which they occurred.

Britain has the second-highest death toll in the world on a per capita basis, according to Reuters calculations based on deaths following confirmed coronavirus tests. 

However, testing and methods of recording deaths differ between countries and British ministers say it will take some time before proper comparisons can be made. 

Additional reporting: Reuters