The United Kingdom has taken its biggest step yet out of lockdown, with rules easing in England, Scotland and Wales despite mounting concern over the spread of a highly contagious coronavirus variant.
From Monday, for the first time in months, people in England are able to eat a restaurant meal indoors, drink in a pub, go to a museum, hug friends and visit one another’s homes.
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Venues such as cinemas, concert halls and sports stadiums are reopening, and a ban on overseas holidays has been lifted, with travel made possible to a small number of countries with low infection rates.
Devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales also loosened rules on indoor socialising and allowed hospitality and entertainment businesses to welcome customers again.
Restrictions will be relaxed slightly later in Northern Ireland. It was not immediately clear why, but each country within the union sets its own timeline.
Rising concerns over new variant
The moves come amid rising anxiety that the coronavirus virus variant first found in India, B.1.617.2, is spreading fast in the UK.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a June 21 deadline for lifting all lockdown measures in England, but this could yet be pushed back.
British scientific advisers say B.1.617.2 may be up to 50 percent more transmissible than B.1.1.7, the strain which was first identified in Kent, England, late last year.
The so-called “UK variant” fuelled a spike in infection rates which saw Johnson enforce another lockdown in England, on January 6.
PM urges caution
Johnson urged people to proceed with “a heavy dose of caution” as measures were eased this week in a bid to “keep the virus at bay”.
“We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising,” he said.
“I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today.”
Cases of the B.1.617.2 variant have more than doubled in a week in the UK, from 520 to 1,313, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections and deaths won by the lockdown restrictions and a rapid mass vaccination campaign.
Surge testing has been rolled out in Bolton and Blackburn, in northwest England, where cases of the strain are rising.
Pop-up vaccination sites have also been set up to speed the inoculation drive.
Across the UK, meanwhile, the government is shortening the gap between vaccine doses for people over the age of 50 from 12 to eight weeks in a bid to give them faster protection.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said scientists had a “high degree of confidence” that current vaccines in use in the UK work against the B.1.617.2 variant.
But he also warned the strain is more transmissible than B.1.1.7 and that “it is likely it will become the dominant variant” in the country.
‘This was not inevitable’
Critics of the UK’s ruling Conservative Party government say lax border rules have allowed the new variant to enter the country.
They accuse Johnson’s administration of delaying a ban on visitors from India because it is seeking a trade deal with the vast country.
India, which is experiencing a devastating coronavirus outbreak, was added to the UK’s high-risk “red list” on April 23, weeks after neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We shouldn’t be in this situation,” opposition Labour Party politician Yvette Cooper told the BBC on Sunday. “This was not inevitable.”
Govt should have put India on the red list three weeks earlier. That indecision has made this outbreak much worse. People have done their bit, not seeing family, supporting vaccines etc & we don’t want to go backwards. But Govt has to do its bit – MUST act quicker on new variants pic.twitter.com/M3NPwj8rfr
— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) May 16, 2021
The government denies that its health policies were influenced by politics or trade.
The UK has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths to date – the highest reported toll in Europe and the world’s fifth-largest overall, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.
The crisis has wreaked havoc on the UK economy, which last year suffered its worst decline in three centuries. Officials have spent hundreds of billions of pounds to save jobs and companies amid the downturn.
Last week, Johnson committed to a public inquiry into his government’s handling of the pandemic, a move he had been under pressure to take after critics accused him of mishandling the early stages of the crisis.
But the government’s popularity has enjoyed a “vaccine bounce” from the national immunisation programme, demonstrated by a strong showing in local elections in England earlier this month.
Almost 70 percent of British adults have now received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than 38 percent have been fully inoculated with two doses.
New infections have plummeted to an average of approximately 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths have fallen to single figures a day.