By Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday gave the green light to cautious hugging and the serving of pints inside pubs after months of strict restrictions as he set out the next phase of coronavirus lockdown easing in England.
Johnson confirmed that England could continue to the next stage of his four-step plan to bring the country out of lockdown by the summer, as the COVID-19 situation improved thanks to the rollout of vaccines and social restriction measures.
“This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further,” Johnson told a media conference.
“We are announcing the single biggest step on our road map, and it will allow us to do many of the things that we’ve yearned to do for a long time.”
Under Step 3, from May 17 people will be permitted to meet up indoors for the first time in months, in groups of up to six people or two full households together.
Pubs, cafes and restaurants will be able to host customers indoors, also for the first time in months and subject to certain rules. Other indoor entertainment like cinemas and sports venues will also be able to resume activity.
Johnson said the government would allow families and close friends to make their own choices on social contact, but urged people not to throw caution to the wind and said social distancing must continue in workplaces, shops and restaurants.
“Whoever I hug, I can assure you, it will be done with caution and restraint,” Johnson said, adding that the “1 meter plus” social-distancing rule in businesses might be dispensed with in the next stage of easing on June 21.
He appeared to rule out accelerating the end of restrictions, saying the success of Britain’s road map thus far had been helped by the ability to gather and monitor data.
“It’s by being prudent and being cautious that we’ve been able to make the progress that we have,” he said.
According to Johns Hopkins data, Britain has the fifth-highest death toll in the world from COVID-19 with 127,609 fatalities. Two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom have had a first vaccine and one-third have had both doses.
The reopening will apply to England only, with the semi-autonomous governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales setting out their own rules.
On Monday, the chief medical officers of those nations also lowered the COVID-19 alert level, meaning that an epidemic is in general circulation but transmission is no longer high or rising exponentially.
In a statement, the medical officers said social distancing and the rapid vaccine rollout had helped to bring coronavirus cases and daily deaths down sharply.
“However COVID is still circulating with people catching and spreading the virus every day, so we all need to continue to be vigilant,” they said. “This remains a major pandemic globally.”
(Reporting by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon and Alistair Smout; Editing by Janet Lawrence/Mark Heinrich and Matthew Lewis)