Sat | Jul 31, 2021
UNITED KINGDOM

UK readies for major reopening but new variant sparks worry

Published:Monday | May 17, 2021 | 12:07 AM
A person waves a Union Jack flag as the new P&O cruise ship ‘Iona’ arrives in Southampton, England, for the first time ahead of its naming ceremony on Sunday.
A person waves a Union Jack flag as the new P&O cruise ship ‘Iona’ arrives in Southampton, England, for the first time ahead of its naming ceremony on Sunday.
Chris Whitty, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, speaking at a press conference about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in London on Friday, May 14.
Chris Whitty, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer, speaking at a press conference about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in London on Friday, May 14.
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LONDON (AP):

Travellers in England were packing their bags, bartenders were polishing their glasses, and performers were warming up as Britain prepared Sunday for a major step out of lockdown — but with clouds of worry on the horizon.

Excitement at the reopening of travel and hospitality vied with anxiety that a more contagious virus variant, first found in India, is spreading fast and could delay further plans to reopen.

Cases of the variant have more than doubled in a week in the UK, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections and deaths won by hard-earned months of restrictions and a rapid vaccination campaign. A surge in testing and stepped-up vaccination effort was being conducted in the northern England areas hardest hit by that variant.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the variant, formally known as B.1.617.2, is more transmissible than the UK’s main strain and “it is likely it will become the dominant variant”.

“This isn’t over yet,” Hancock told the BBC on Sunday. “The virus has just gained a bit of pace and we’ve therefore all got to be that bit much more careful and cautious.”

On Monday, people in England will be able to eat a restaurant meal indoors, drink inside a pub, go to a museum, hug friends and visit one another’s homes for the first time in months. A ban on overseas holidays is also being lifted, with travel now possible to a short list of countries with low infection rates. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following similar but slightly different reopening paths.

Patrick Dardis, chief executive of brewery and pub chain Young’s, said the indoor opening – which follows the reopening of outdoor patios and beer gardens last month – is “a big step back on to the path to normality”.

“The weather has been pretty dire, and people are hardy, but we really needed this next step to come,” he said.

But hospitality and entertainment venues say they won’t be able to make money until they can open at full capacity. That’s due to happen on June 21, the date set by the government for lifting its remaining COVID-19 restrictions, including social-distancing and mask-wearing rules.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said if the new variant causes a big surge in cases, it could scupper that plan.

Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest reported toll in Europe. But new infections have plummeted to an average of around 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, and deaths have fallen to single figures a day.

Almost 70 per cent of British adults have received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and more than 37 per cent have had both doses.