British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has furthered plans to reopen the U.K. economy by offering free COVID-19 tests to everyone in England and taking steps to allow thousands of sports fans to return to stadiums this month.
Mr. Johnson confirmed Monday that the pandemic has eased enough across the country that as of April 12 non-essential shops can reopen and pubs can start serving customers outdoors. More restrictions will be relaxed on May 17, and virtually all lockdown measures are on track to be lifted by the end of June.
“I want to stress that we see nothing in the present data that makes us think that we will have to deviate from that roadmap,” he said during a news conference. “But – and you know I’m going to say this – we can’t be complacent. We can see the waves of sickness afflicting other countries and we’ve seen how this story goes.”
Britain has seen a remarkable decline in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks as the vaccination rollout quickens. Daily infections have dropped below 3,000 after soaring as high as 60,000 earlier this year, and cases of the South African and Brazilian variants have remained low. The death toll fell to 47 Sunday, compared with more than 1,300 some days in January.
Meanwhile, the number of people who have received at least one dose of vaccine has climbed to 31.6 million, and 5.4 million have had both shots.
To help quicken the pace of the recovery, the government said that as of Friday people across England will be offered two lateral flow tests each week. Free kits will be made available through testing centres, online via the National Health Service and at pharmacies. The government hopes increased testing will ensure that any local flare-ups of the disease will be quickly identified and countered.
Lateral flow tests can deliver results in 30 minutes, but some experts say they can be inaccurate. Government figures indicate there is roughly one false positive result for every 1,000 tests.
Anyone who tests positive will be required to self-isolate for 10 days. However, they can request a polymerase chain reaction test, or PCR, which is more reliable and delivers results within 24 hours; if that test comes back negative, no further quarantine will be required.
Mr. Johnson said the government is keen to reopen theatres and encourage sports fans to return to stadiums. The government has designated nine events – including three big soccer matches, the World Snooker Championship and a film festival – as a pilot project for the safe return of as many as 20,000 spectators.
The pilot project will focus on developing “COVID-status certificates” to verify whether spectators have been vaccinated, have tested negative for COVID-19 or have “natural immunity” from testing positive in the past three months. If successful, the certificates could be issued via an NHS app.
These certificates “could potentially play a role in settings such as theatres, nightclubs, and mass events such as festivals or sports events to help manage risks where large numbers of people are brought together in close proximity,” the government said Monday.
Many business groups have pushed back against the plan and argued that the certificates would be unworkable and impossible to enforce. More than 70 MPs, including 40 of Mr. Johnson’s fellow Conservatives, have also come out against the idea. In a Monday newspaper article, Sir Graham Brady, a Tory MP who chairs a group of backbenchers, warned that the certificates would be “intrusive, costly and unnecessary.”
Mr. Johnson sought to play down the controversy by signalling that no plans had been finalized. ”There are complicated, ethical and practical issues raised by the idea of COVID-status certification,” he said. “You’ve got to be very careful in how you handle this and don’t start a system that’s discriminatory. But obviously we’re looking at it.”
However, he added that some kind of vaccine passport for international travel was likely. “The idea of vaccination status being useful for international travel is something that all countries are looking at. I do think that’s going to be part of the way people deal with it, and we need to think about that,” he said.
The government is hoping to allow people to resume leisure travel abroad on May 17 and is developing a “traffic light” system for various destinations. The system will designate countries as red, yellow or green, with different quarantine and testing levels for each category. The colour coding will be based on vaccination levels, infection rates and the prevalence of variants. The green list, which will not require a quarantine period for arriving passengers, is expected to include Israel, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
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