LONDON – Pubs open for drinks indoors, lights on in theaters and airports buzzed with a constant flow of travelers on Monday, but the latest easing of Covid-19 restrictions in England was accompanied by growing fears that ‘a variant of the virus could delay a full return to normalcy.
The lifting of a wide range of coronavirus rules on Monday coincided with a small but worrying spike in cases of a variant, first identified in India, that threatens a lockdown lifting roadmap frequently described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “cautious but irreversible”.
Already, the second part of this commitment seems less certain than it once seemed. In recent days, authorities have rushed to step up testing and inoculation in parts of the country, due to a sharp increase in cases of the most transmissible variant. More than 6,200 people were vaccinated this weekend in Bolton, a hard-hit town near Manchester in north-west England.
The opposition Labor Party accused Mr Johnson of causing the problem by delaying the decision to close the borders to flights from India last month, while government science advisers have expressed concerns over going too fast to remove borders.
Even Mr Johnson, who is normally all too inclined to ridicule pessimists as ‘bad guys and morons’, urged Britons to be cautious of the threat of the new variant, saying there was a risk. of “significant disruption” of plans. to relax the rules.
Mr Johnson also has no plans to visit a pub or restaurant on Monday to celebrate in front of television cameras, his office said.
In recent weeks Mr Johnson has been able to claim credit for a highly effective vaccination program which, combined with lockdown restrictions, has reduced cases and death rates to a fraction of their maximum number. This allowed England to start easing the burden on many of the sectors of the economy that were hit hardest by a January lockdown.
Under the changes that took effect Monday, pubs and restaurants can serve indoors and outdoors, people can kiss and mingle inside their homes in limited numbers.
Museums, theaters and cinemas, sports stadiums, hotels and indoor playgrounds have reopened in England, although Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have slightly different times and conditions for relax the rules.
A legal ban on all overseas travel except essential ones has also ended, although travelers to destinations other than a small number of destinations will need to be quarantined upon their return.
Overall, this represents the first real breath of freedom for many in England since the declaration of the third national lockout in early January. Although restaurants and pubs may have served food and drink outdoors for several weeks, the weather has been unusually cold and often rainy, leaving many diners and drinkers to shiver in the damp beer gardens.
As the government will fight hard not to have to reverse the changes introduced on Monday, there are growing doubts about its ability to take the next step on the roadmap. This change, scheduled for June 21, would remove almost all remaining restrictions.
But with a surge of cases in some communities, including Bolton, the government refuses to rule out any measures, including possibly imposing new restrictions on specific Covid-19 hotspots.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament on Monday, adding that there were now 86 areas with five or more cases of the variant with the highest transmission rate. “Poses a real risk. “If the overall number of cases, at 2,323, remains low, it is multiplying rapidly.
Mr Johnson continues to hear criticism for not cracking down on travel from India quickly enough, even sparing it for a few weeks after placing restrictions on travel from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Under the UK travel system, people arriving from “red list” countries deemed to be high risk must self-quarantine in hotels.
“Our borders have been as secure as a sieve,” said Jonathan Ashworth, speaking on behalf of the opposition Labor Party on health issues. “The delay in adding India to the Red List is certainly a catastrophic misstep.”
Pakistan and Bangladesh were put on the red list on April 9, but India was not added until April 23, and Mr Johnson’s critics have suggested he was reluctant to upset the Indian prime minister , Narendra Modi, with whom he is trying to strike a trade deal.
Mr Hancock rejected this claim and said many more people arriving from Bangladesh and Pakistan had tested positive for Covid-19 than those arriving from India. In parliament on Monday he accused the Labor Party of selective pullback, saying that last month the Indian variant had not been identified as worrying.
But some experts believe that the government should have reacted more quickly to the emergence of the variant. “Many of us in the UK are appalled at the huge delay in classifying it as a variant of concern,” said Peter English, retired communicable disease consultant.
“You can’t stop diseases from crossing borders – they inevitably will,” he said, adding, “But you can slow the spread, and while that happens you can learn more about it. subject.”
Dr English said there was not yet enough data available to determine to what extent vaccines fight the variant, but added that more financial support should be given to low-income people who need to self-isolate.
In general, Britons are offered vaccination based on their age, with older people being treated first. Appointments are due to be extended this week to 37, Mr Hancock said.
However, in areas affected by the Indian variant, health chiefs appear to be offering vaccines to some young people, using the flexibility of guidelines that, for example, suggest vaccination of people living in a multigenerational household.
Mr Hancock also said on Monday that out of 19 cases in hospitals in Bolton, most patients were eligible for vaccination but had not had one. This has sparked debate within and beyond Mr Johnson’s Tory Party over whether the lifting of lockdown restrictions should be rescinded to protect people who refuse a vaccine.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer and theater manager, told the BBC that the reluctance to get vaccinated was not only foolish but selfish. He added he couldn’t reopen his shows without assurances that all restrictions would be relaxed as planned from June 21, allowing full seats without distancing.
“I feel so deep right now, especially the people who don’t get the vaccine and all, how selfish it is because so many people depend on that June 21 date, they really depend on it,” he said. he declared.
Megan Specia contributed reporting from London.