Travelers in England were packing their bags, bartenders were polishing their glasses and artists were warming up as Britain on Sunday prepared for a big step out of the exclusion – but with clouds of concern on the horizon .
Excitement over the reopening of travel and hospitality has raised fears that a more contagious virus variant first found in India could spread rapidly and delay further plans to reopen.
Cases of the variant have more than doubled in the UK within a week, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections and deaths, won by hard-earned months of restrictions and a rapid vaccination campaign. In the northern English areas worst affected by the variant, a recovery test was done and an increased vaccination effort was made.
Health Minister Matt Hancock said the variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the main strain in the UK and that it is likely to become the dominant variant.
“It’s not over yet,” Hancock told the BBC on Sunday. “The virus has just gotten a little faster and that’s why we all need to be much more careful and cautious.”
On Monday, people in England can eat a restaurant indoors, drink in a bar, go to a museum, hug friends and visit each other’s homes for the first time in months. A ban on overseas holidays is also being lifted, and it is now possible to travel to a short list of countries with low infection rates. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland follow similar but slightly different reopening roads.
Patrick Dardis, CEO of Young’s brewery and bar chain, said the indoor opening, following the reopening of outdoor patios and beer gardens last month, “is a big step back on the road to normalcy.”
“The weather was pretty awful, and people were hardy, but we really needed this next step to come,” he said.
But hospitality and entertainment venues say they will have to make money first before they can open at full capacity. It will take place on June 21, the date set by the government for the removal of the remaining COVID-19 restrictions, including social rules and the removal of the mask.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said if the new variant caused a major increase in business, it could exacerbate the plan.
Britain has recorded nearly 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest reported toll in Europe. But new infections dropped to an average of about 2,000 a day, compared to nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths dropped to a few figures a day.
Nearly 70% of British adults received a first dose of coronavirus vaccine, and more than 37% had both doses.
Army-backed health officials are conducting detection tests in Bolton and Blackburn in the north-west of England, where cases of the new variant have been merged and pop-up vaccination sites have been set up to speed up the vaccination. Across the country, the government is narrowing the gap between doses for people over 50 from 12 to eight weeks in an effort to give them more protection.
Hancock said scientists have a “high degree of confidence” that current vaccines work against the Indian-identified variant.
Critics of the British Conservative government say the new variant has entered the country through lax border rules. They accuse the government of delaying a ban on visitors from India, which is experiencing a devastating coronavirus outbreak, because they want to bring about a trade deal with the sprawling country.
India was added to the UK high-risk red list on April 23, a few weeks behind neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We should not be in this situation,” Labor opposition leader Yvette Cooper said. “It was not inevitable.”
The government denies that its health policy has been influenced by political or trade considerations.
Mark Walport, a member of the government’s emergency advisory group, said Britain was in a ‘dangerous moment’ and people should be careful about their new freedoms.
“My advice is that just because you can do something does not necessarily mean,” he told Sky News. ‘Socialize outside, keep social distance as far as possible. If you are going to cuddle, you need to give hugs carefully. ”