'Cautious hugging' and pints: UK PM Johnson to ease England's lockdown


FILE PHOTO: People gather in Covent Garden as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions ease, in London, Britain, April 17, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will set out on Monday the next phase of lockdown easing in England, giving the green light to "cautious hugging" and the serving of pints inside pubs after months of strict restrictions.

News about the next easing, to begin on May 17, comes as the country's chief medical officers 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."

Britain is in the process of gradually lifting its latest lockdown over a period of months, in line with a four-step plan unveiled in February.

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's Downing Street office said the latest data on COVID-19 vaccinations, on infections, hospitalisations and deaths, and on the risk posed by new variants, had been taken into account in deciding to move forward with Step 3.

"The data reflects what we already knew - we are not going to let this virus beat us," Johnson said, according to the statement.

"The roadmap remains on track, our successful vaccination programme continues - more than two-thirds of adults in the UK have now had the first vaccine - and we can now look forward to unlocking cautiously but irreversibly."

The government is also expected to say whether the rules around social distancing with friends and family can ease, prompting headlines about "cautious hugging".

Junior minister Nadine Dorries was asked by the BBC if people would be told to hug each other cautiously. "I don't think you can cautiously cuddle but the prime minister is going to make the announcement this afternoon," she said.

The reopening will apply to England only, with the semi-autonomous governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales setting out their own rules.

According to Johns Hopkins data, Britain has the fifth highest death toll in the world from COVID-19 with 127,605 fatalities. Two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom have had a first vaccine and one-third have had both doses.

(Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon Editing by Janet Lawrence/Mark Heinrich)

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