Much of Britain will take a major step toward normality next week when the government lifts a host of lockdown restrictions in England and permits people to hug each other, drink a pint in a pub and watch a movie in a cinema.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that as of May 17, pubs and restaurants in England can resume indoor service and other venues will be allowed to reopen, including movie theatres, conference centres, concert halls, museums and sports stadiums – albeit with a limited number of spectators. People will also be able to travel around the country and stay overnight. Governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which manage their own health care services, are set to introduce similar measures.
“This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said during a televised news conference. Mr. Johnson urged people to remain careful about their interactions, including when it came to hugging.
“You should do it if you think it’s appropriate and if you think the risks are very low, but you should exercise common sense,” he said. “I think whoever I hug, [it] will be done with caution and restraint – I am not going to act it out now.”
Mr. Johnson added that the government was on track to lift or modify all remaining restrictions on June 21, including easing rules governing where face masks must be worn and potentially ending the requirement to keep at least one metre apart.
Britain has seen a steady decline in infections, deaths and hospitalizations in recent weeks as the country’s vaccination rollout ramped up. More than two-thirds of adults have received one dose of vaccine and nearly 18 million people have had two shots. The government expects that every adult will be offered a dose by the end of July.
The results so far have been better than many health experts expected. On Monday, the government reported 2,357 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths – a stark comparison to more than 60,000 infections and 1,500 deaths some days in January when a new variant of the virus began to spread across the country. Hospitalizations have also dropped to the lowest level since last July.
On Monday, Britain’s leading health officials lowered the country’s COVID-19 alert level from 4 to 3, signalling that the virus was no longer spreading exponentially. Level 3 indicates the epidemic “is in general circulation.”
“Thanks to the efforts of the U.K. public in social distancing and the impact we are starting to see from the vaccination program, case numbers, deaths and COVID hospital pressures have fallen consistently,” said a statement from the Chief Medical Officers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“We’re in a better position now because of falling [infection] rates and a good vaccination program, which I would anticipate will just continue to increasingly protect our population,” said Sharon Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge and director of the COVID-19 Genomics U.K. Consortium, which has been tracking variants of the virus.
Dr. Peacock cautioned that scientists and health experts remain concerned about mutations of the virus, particularly the variant that first surfaced in India, known as B.1.617.2. It has been designated a “variant of concern” in the U.K. and health officials said there were 520 confirmed cases of the variant, up from 202 on April 28.
Dr. Peacock said there was no evidence that the B.1.617.2 variant was more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 mutation, which was first detected outside London last November and is now the dominant form of the virus in the U.K. “It’s at least as equal to B.1.1.7,” she told a media briefing on Monday. She added that it was also unclear if the variant causes more severe illness.
Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the B.1.617.2 variant appears to be slightly better at evading vaccines, but that immunization still provided good protection against severe illness.
“On an individual level, vaccination is still fantastic and works,” he told the briefing. “In terms of controlling transmission, there may be a degree of compromise and that will feed into the estimates of transmissibility.”
Along with the public-health benefits, the vaccination program has also given Mr. Johnson and his Conservative Party a political boost.
The Tories scored major victories in 143 local council elections held last Thursday. Ballot counting took longer because of COVID-19 restrictions, and by Monday the final results showed that the Conservatives had picked up more than 290 council seats, largely at the expense of the Labour Party.
The Tories also won mayoralty contests in areas that had been dominated by Labour for decades, and took a by-election for a seat at Westminster in Hartlepool, a riding in northern England that had been represented by a Labour member of Parliament since 1974.
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