LONDON: People in England on Monday rushed outdoors as sports returned in the latest easing of coronavirus restrictions, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned spiralling cases in Europe meant more deaths were inevitable.
England’s months-old rules have been relaxed thanks in large part to a successful vaccination drive, enabling outdoor gatherings of up to six people, or two households, in what newspapers have dubbed “Happy Monday”.
“We haven’t swum since the fifth of January so we were beyond excited to come back and get back into the water,” swimmer Jessica Walker told AFP from the Hillingdon Lido in northwest London.
“It’s very exhilarating, it’s absolutely fantastic for managing both mental and physical health,” she added, basking in unusually sunny late March weather.
Under the UK government’s staggered lockdown lifting plan for England, schools reopened on March 8 and an official stay-at-home order ended Monday, allowing team and individual amateur sports to restart.
Non-essential retailers and services such as hairdressers will reopen from April 12, when outdoor drinking in pub gardens can also resume.
Limited indoor mixing in hospitality premises will then be allowed from mid-May, while many other remaining restrictions will be eased on June 21, if the outlook remains positive.
The devolved governments of the UK’s other nations — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are moving at their own pace.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson paid tribute to the public’s “months of sacrifice” and said he hoped Monday “will kick-start a great British summer of sport — with people of all ages reunited with teammates, and able to resume the activities they love”.
But he also warned that the third wave of the pandemic sweeping across Europe would lead to a rise in deaths at home, despite the vaccine rollout.
“That wave is still rising across the Channel, and it’s inevitable ... there will be more infections and unavoidably more hospitalisations and sadly, more deaths,” he said in a press conference on Monday. “So, what we need to do is to continue flat out to build the immunity of our population, build our defences against that wave, when it comes.”
He called the vaccine rollout “very impressive” but added that experts “don’t know exactly how strong our fortifications” are against another surge.
With more than 126,000 deaths, Britain has one of the world’s worst mortality rates from the pandemic. But the level of new infections has been falling since early January and is now averaging around 5,000 cases a day.
Meanwhile on Sunday the country passed the milestone of inoculating more than 30 million adults with a first coronavirus vaccine dose.
Britain has so far been using two jabs, developed by Oxford University/AstraZeneca and BioNTech/Pfizer.
The first batch of 17 million doses of US company Moderna’s vaccine is set to be delivered next month, easing concerns about an imminent shortfall in supplies.