UK to reopen amid new COVID variant worry

·2-min read

Travellers in England are packing their bags, bartenders polishing their glasses and performers warming up as Britain prepares for a major step out of COVID-19 lockdown - but with clouds of worry on the horizon.

Excitement on Sunday 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.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Britons to "take this next step with a heavy dose of caution".

"We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising," he said.

"I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay."

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 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".

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.

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 June 21, the date set by the government for lifting its remaining restrictions, including social distancing and mask-wearing rules.

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 2000 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 38 per cent have had both doses.

Across the country, the government is shortening the gap between doses for people over 50 from 12 to eight weeks in a bid to give them more protection.

India was added to the UK's high-risk "red list" on April 23, weeks after neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The government denies its health policies were influenced by political or trade considerations.