The UK has taken its biggest step so far out of blockade, with regulation of the rules in England, Scotland and Wales, despite growing concern about the spread of a highly contagious coronavirus variant.
Starting Monday, for the first time in months, people in England can eat inside a restaurant, drink in a pub, go to a museum, hug friends and visit other people’s homes.
Spaces such as cinemas, concert halls and sports stadiums have been reopened and the ban on holidays abroad has been lifted, with the possibility of traveling to a small number of countries with low infection rates.
Decentralized administrations in Scotland and Wales also relaxed rules on internal socialization and allowed hospitality and entertainment companies to welcome customers back.
Restrictions will ease a little later in Northern Ireland. It was not immediately known why, but each country within the union sets its own timetable.
Growing concern for the new variant
The movements occur amid growing anxiety that the coronavirus virus variant first found in India, B.1.617.2, is spreading rapidly in the UK.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set a deadline of June 21 to lift all blockade measures in England, but it could still be pushed back.
According to British scientific advisers, B.1.617.2 may be up to 50 per cent more transmissible than B.1.1.7, the strain first identified in Kent (England) late last year.
The so-called “UK variant” fueled an increase in infection rates that prompted Johnson to apply another blockade in England on 6 January.
The Prime Minister urges caution
Johnson urged people to continue with “a strong dose of caution,” as measures were softened this week to try to “keep the virus at bay.”
“We are keeping the spread of the first identified variant in India under close observation and taking swift action when infection rates increase,” he said.
“I urge everyone to be prudent and take responsibility when they enjoy new freedoms today.”
Cases of variant B.1.617.2 have doubled in more than a week in the UK, from 520 to 1,313, challenging a strong downward trend nationwide in infections and deaths gained from blockade restrictions and a rapid mass vaccination campaign.
Overvoltage tests have been carried out in Bolton and Blackburn, in the north-west of England, where strain cases are on the rise.
Emerging vaccination sites have also been created to accelerate inoculation.
Meanwhile, across the UK, the government is reducing the gap between doses of vaccines for people over 50 from 12 to eight weeks to try to protect them more quickly.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said scientists had a “high degree of confidence” that current vaccines used in the UK work against variant B.1.617.2.
But he also warned that the strain is more transmissible than B.1.1.7 and that “it is likely to become the dominant variant” in the country.
“This was not inevitable”
Critics with the ruling Conservative Party of the United Kingdom say lax border rules have allowed the new variant to enter the country.
They accuse the Johnson administration of delaying the ban on visitors from India because it seeks 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 neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“We should not be in this situation,” Labor Party politician Yvette Cooper told the BBC on Sunday. “That wasn’t inevitable.”
The government should have put India on the red list three weeks earlier. This indecision has made this outbreak much worse. People have done their bit, they don’t see family, they support vaccines, etc., and we don’t want to go back. But the government must contribute its grain of sand: It must act more quickly 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 United Kingdom has recorded nearly 128,000 coronavirus deaths to date, the highest toll reported in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico.
The crisis has wreaked havoc on the British economy, which last year suffered its worst decline in three centuries. Officials have spent hundreds of billions of pounds to save jobs and businesses in the midst of the recession.
Last week, Johnson committed to public investigation as for the government dealing with the pandemic, an action that had been put under pressure after critics accused it of mishandling the early stages of the crisis.
But the government’s popularity has enjoyed a “vaccine rebound” from the national vaccination program, demonstrated by a strong display in local elections in England earlier this month.
Almost 70% of British adults have received the first dose of coronavirus vaccine and more than 38% have been completely inoculated with two doses.
New infections have dropped to an average of about 2,000 a day, compared to nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths have been reduced to single figures a day.