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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a televised news conference at 10 Downing Street, in London, on Feb. 22, 2021.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a cautious plan to ease lockdown restrictions over the next four months in the hope that Britain has managed to finally control a new variant of the COVID-19 virus that has swept across the country.

“We’re setting out on what I hope, and believe, is a one-way road to freedom,” Mr. Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday. “Today the end really is in sight.”

Britain has been under a near total lockdown since just after Christmas, when cases soared because of a new variant first detected in Kent, outside London, in late November. The mutation has spread throughout Britain and around the world, and now accounts for more than 80 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom. Studies show it is up to 70 per cent more transmissible and 30 per cent deadlier than the original version of the virus.

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Under Mr. Johnson’s multi-staged approach, all schools in England will reopen on March 8 and households will be allowed to mix outside on a limited basis as of March 29. If all goes well, pubs and restaurants will resume operations outdoors in mid-April and indoors a month later. Concert halls, theatres and hotels will reopen on May 17, and as many as 10,000 fans will be able to return to sporting events. All remaining restrictions are slated to end on June 21, as long as the infection rate remains under control and hospitals are not under strain. Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland plan to lift their restrictions on a similar timetable.

Mr. Johnson said the government also plans to begin reviewing measures relating to face masks, international travel and “COVID passports.” However, it’s unclear how long those reviews will take.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that easing restrictions could lead to a rise in infections but he added that the government couldn’t pursue a “zero COVID” strategy. “We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental well-being and the life chances of our children,” he said. However, he added that the government would not hesitate to reimpose measures if necessary.

Scientists applauded his caution and said the U.K. still faces high levels of infection and hospitalization. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, has also warned that even under the most optimistic scenario, easing restrictions will likely lead to at least 30,000 more COVID-19 deaths by the end of June. The herd immunity threshold, when a large part of the population is immune to the virus, is unknown but likely to be high because of the new variant, SAGE added.

“With over 4 million [U.K.] cases and 120,00 deaths, I hope we have learned that this virus, with its various variants, needs to be treated with respect and caution,” said Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.

Mr. Johnson appears to have learned his lesson from two lockdowns last year when he faced criticism for moving too quickly in lifting restrictions. In both instances the infection rate climbed rapidly and the government had to reimpose the measures. The new variant has also provided a sobering reality check and many hospitals have been overwhelmed in recent weeks. The mutation has pushed the U.K. to one of the highest COVID-19 death totals in the world, at more than 120,000.

“We must always be humble in the face of nature and we must be cautious,” Mr. Johnson said Monday. “We cannot escape the fact that lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalizations and, sadly, more deaths.”

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He said he has taken comfort in the country’s successful vaccination program, which has inoculated more than 18 million people so far, or more than one quarter of the population. Britain has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world, and last week the government committed to offering a jab to every adult by July 31, a month ahead of the original schedule.

A pair of reports released Monday showed that the vaccines have already had an impact. Researchers in Scotland tracked more than one million people who had been immunized with either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and found that a single dose reduced hospitalization by 85 per cent and 94 per cent respectively. A report from Public Health England also found that a single dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provided 75 per cent protection from severe disease in people over the age of 80.

“The vaccination program has dramatically changed the odds in our favour and it is on that basis that we can now proceed,” Mr. Johnson said.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak. The Globe and Mail

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