LONDON - In less than a week, people in England will be able to give friends and family a hug for the first time since restrictions were put in place in March last year at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday that he has given the go-ahead for that much-missed human contact from May 17 as part of the next round of lockdown easing following a sharp fall in new coronavirus infections. Other easing measures included the reopening of pubs and restaurants indoors as well as cinemas and hotels, and allowing two households to meet up inside a home.
However, he stressed that people should exercise common sense given that social contact is the main way the virus is transmitted. He also said people should remain vigilant to unexpected changes in the coronavirus data and the spread of new variants that could bypass some of the immunity provided by Britain’s successful vaccination campaign.
"This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident we will be able to go further," he said at a briefing from Downing Street. "This doesn’t mean that we can suddenly throw caution to the wind ... I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones whether they have had a vaccine, one or two doses, and whether there has been time for that vaccine to take effect."
The U.K. is now recording around 2,000 new coronavirus cases a day, compared with a daily peak of nearly 70,000 in January. Daily deaths have also plummeted with only four recorded on Monday.
Johnson's announcement was preceded with the news that the U.K.'s alert level was also lowered to level three from four on Monday following a "consistent" fall in cases, hospital admissions and deaths. This means that transmission of the virus is no longer deemed to be high or rising exponentially, though still being in general circulation.
In the easing next week, Johnson said that six people, or two households even if the total is higher, will be able to mix inside homes as well as in pubs and restaurants. The limits on outdoor gatherings have been raised to 30 people. Indoor entertainment activities such as cinemas, soft play areas, adult group sports, exercise classes and hotels are also allowed to reopen next Monday. And students won't have to wear face coverings in class.
Since the lockdown started to be eased in recent weeks as part of a plan the government insists is being driven by "data, not dates," the mixing of households was only allowed outdoors, such as in a garden or restaurant patio, provided that social distancing was followed.
The government previously announced a tentative reopening of foreign travel from May 17, with only a handful of destinations deemed safe enough to ditch the 10-day quarantine requirements upon return. Portugal and Iceland now have no quarantine requirements but other popular destinations such as France, Italy, Spain and Greece will still require quarantining and a series of coronavirus tests.
Similar restrictions are being eased in the other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — following a sharp fall in new infections as a result of a long winter lockdown and the rapid rollout of vaccines.
Although the U.K. has recorded Europe's highest coronavirus death toll, with more than 127,500 dead, new infections have dropped dramatically. In addition, the success of Britain's vaccine rollout has raised hopes that this easing will not see the same virus resurgence that happened last fall following a lifting of restrictions during the summer.
Around 53% of the British population have received one dose of vaccine while more than a quarter have had two jabs — one of the speediest vaccine rollouts in the world.
The ensuing round of lockdown easing is expected on June 21. The hope is that all other limits on social contacts will be lifted then. Johnson said more details will be laid out later this month including whether social distancing will be scrapped and whether vaccine passports will have a role in the future.
Though the coronavirus backdrop is clearly much improved, there are concerns that the government is being overly hasty with lifting the restrictions on social contact at a time when some parts of the world, such as India, are in the midst of a huge resurgence of the virus, and the vaccine rollout still has a way to go.
Gurch Randhawa, a professor of diversity in public health at the University of Bedfordshire, is one who's wary, and cautioned about potential mixed messaging coming from the government.
"It is no doubt tempting to relax social distancing, offer the glimmer of a much needed hug, and lift restrictions on international travel, but this could be a big mistake at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic," he said.
"As a minimum, the government should be advising only those have received both vaccination doses to be hugging each other, and even, a short hug, with faces directed away from each other to minimize risk of COVID-19 transmission," he added.