England has taken a significant step on its way out of lockdown, with outdoor meetings and activities permitted for the first time in months, but woes over vaccine supplies and a rising caseload across Europe persist.
From Monday, people were allowed to meet outside in groups of six. Outdoor sports facilities such as swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts reopened, with social distancing measures in place.
The moves are part of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s road map for exiting the national lockdown, which was enforced in England on January 6.
His plan is underpinned by a swift vaccine rollout which has seen more than 30 million people – almost 60 percent of adults – receive a first dose in the UK.
“Despite today’s easements, everyone must continue to stick to the rules, remember hands, face, space, and come forward for a vaccine when called,” Johnson said.
“We must remain cautious, with cases rising across Europe and new variants threatening our vaccine rollout.”
Many restrictions are still in place in England. Pubs, restaurants, gyms, cinemas, theatres, museums and stadiums, for instance, remain closed.
People are also being urged to keep working from home where possible, and overseas holidays are illegal.
Foreign travel is permitted for a handful of reasons, however, such as attending a funeral, or for medical needs.
The devolved governments in the other parts of the UK – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – are taking broadly similar steps.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said the government was taking a “hyper-cautious approach” in the hope the latest lockdown will be the last.
He added that Britons were concerned about new variants circulating in Europe that could be imported back to the UK.
It is not yet clear whether the current vaccines on offer can work against the highly infectious, and reportedly more deadly, new variants in circulation.
Vaccine supply issues
The UK’s immunisation drive is the fourth fastest in the world after Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Chile.
By the end of July, the government hopes everyone above the age of 18 will have received a first dose.
Two vaccines – one developed by Oxford University-AstraZeneca and another by BioNTech-Pfizer – are currently in use.
But health officials say the programme will slow down in April because of a squeeze on supplies, in part because of a delayed shipment from India.
The European Union, which has a slower rate of inoculation, has also threatened to halt shipments of vaccines from factories in the bloc unless manufacturers – notably British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca – send more shots to EU nations.
The UK has recorded Europe’s worst death toll, registering more than 126,000 COVID-19 deaths nationwide.
However, cases and deaths have fallen during the lockdown as vaccines were rolled out – in contrast with other parts of Europe facing fears of a third wave.
On Sunday, the UK recorded 3,862 new cases, the lowest daily figure in six months.