Shops and haircuts return in April as UK slowly lifts lockdown

LONDON (AP) – Children in England will return to class and people can meet a friend outside for coffee in two weeks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday as he outlined a slow easing of the one of the strictest pandemic blockades in Europe.

But those who yearn for a haircut, restaurant meal, or pint in a pub have nearly two months to wait, and people won’t be able to kiss loved ones they don’t live with until May at the earliest.

Johnson said the government’s plan would leave the country “cautiously but irreversibly” from confinement.

“We are now traveling a one-way road to freedom,” he said at a televised press conference.

But it’s a slow road, not a highway.

Britain has experienced the deadliest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with more than 120,000 deaths. Faced with a dominant viral variant that scientists say is both more transmissible and deadly than the original virus, the country has spent much of the winter under strict containment, the third since March 2020. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools, hairdressers and non-essential stores are closed, people are urged not to leave their area, and public holidays abroad are illegal.

That will start to change, slowly, on March 8, when children in England return to school and people are allowed to meet a friend or relative for a chat or a picnic outdoors. Three weeks later, people can meet in small groups outdoors to play sports or relax.

As part of the government plan, stores and hairdressers will reopen on April 12. It will be the same for pubs and restaurants, but only outside. Indoor venues such as theaters and cinemas, and indoor seating in bars and restaurants, are scheduled to open on May 17, and limited crowds will be able to return to sports stadiums. It is also the first date on which Britons can be allowed to spend holidays abroad.

The final stage of the plan, in which all legal limits on social contact are removed and nightclubs can reopen after being closed for 15 months, is scheduled for June 21.

The government said the dates could all be postponed if infections and hospitalizations increase.

The measures announced apply to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all implemented slightly different closures, with some children returning to class in Scotland and Wales on Monday.

Hopes of a return to normalcy rest largely on Britain’s rapid vaccination program which has given more than 17.7 million people, or more than a third of the country’s adult population, the first of two doses of vaccine. The government’s goal is to give every adult an injection of the vaccine by July 31.

Johnson said the vaccines would help Britain put “a miserable year” behind it.

Johnson’s Tory government has been accused of reopening the country too quickly after the first lockdown in the spring and of rejecting scientific advice to have a short ‘kill switch’ lockdown in the fall.

He doesn’t want to make the same mistakes again, although Johnson is under pressure from some conservative lawmakers and business owners, who argue the restrictions should be lifted quickly to revive the struggling economy.

The Conservative government – normally an opponent of lavish public spending – spent 280 billion pounds ($ 393 billion) in 2020 to deal with the pandemic, including billions to pay the wages of nearly 10 million workers in leave.

UK Chamber of Commerce chief executive Adam Marshall welcomed the “clarity” on reopening dates, but said “the future of thousands of businesses and millions of jobs still hangs in the balance. only one thread “.

Johnson said the government’s March 3 annual budget statement would contain new measures “to protect jobs and livelihoods across the UK”

The government says further easing will depend on the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing hospitalizations and deaths, with infection rates remaining low and no new viral variants emerging that throws plans into disarray.

Two British studies published on Monday showed COVID-19 vaccination programs are contributing to sharp declines in illness and hospitalizations, raising hopes that injections will work just as well in the real world as in carefully controlled studies.

Preliminary results from a study in Scotland found that the Pfizer vaccine reduced hospital admissions by up to 85% four weeks after the first dose, while the AstraZeneca vaccine reduced admissions by up to 94%. In England, preliminary data from a study of healthcare workers showed Pfizer’s vaccine reduced the risk of catching COVID-19 by 70% after one dose, a figure that rose to 85% after the second.

Scientists stressed that the results were preliminary.

Johnson said the vaccines had “decisively changed the odds in our favor,” but even with them reopening the company would inevitably lead to more infections and deaths.

He said there was “no credible path to a zero COVID Britain, or even a zero COVID world”.

When asked if he could really guarantee that the easing of the lockdown would be irreversible, the PM said he hoped it would be.

“I cannot guarantee that it will be irreversible, but the intention is that it will be,” he said.

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