By Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton and Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) -Friends will hug, pints will be pulled and swathes of the British economy will reopen on Monday, giving 65 million people a measure of freedom after the gloom of a four-month COVID-19 lockdown.
Most of the British will be free once again to hug, albeit cautiously, drink in their pub, sit down to an indoor meal or visit the cinema after a series of lockdowns that imposed the strictest restrictions in peacetime history.
The biggest public health crisis in a century was accompanied by a drastic extension of state power; during England’s lockdowns police broke up parties and protests alike, shut down religious services and handed out fines of up to 10,000 pounds ($14,000) to youngsters for partying.
As freedom beckons once more, there is excitement.
“I shall be hugging literally everyone I can get my hands on,” British actress Joanna Lumley told The Telegraph newspaper. “I shall snatch babies from their mothers, and lean over zimmer frames.
“I shall hug girls at the till, the picture framer, and lads playing footie in the park. Much later obviously I shall be hugging police personnel as I am charged at the station. Hugger-mugger, that’s me.”
Beside the euphoria, though, there is also anxiety.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who before he imposed three national lockdowns had railed against the “nanny” tendencies of the British state, advised people to cuddle cautiously and served notice that the spread of the coronavirus variant first identified in India meant that the final UK reopening in June could be delayed.
There is growing concern about B.1.617.2 which British scientific advisers say will become the dominant variant in the United Kingdom and which is more transmissible than B.1.1.7, the variant first identified in Kent, England.
Broadly, from Monday in England gatherings of up to 30 people will be allowed outdoors, two families will be permitted to meet indoors; cafes, bars and restaurants will reopen for indoor service; care home residents will be allowed to have five visitors; and face coverings will no longer be compulsory in schools.
A ban on international travel has also been lifted.
“I’m American, my kids are American, my husband’s British, we live in the UK so it’s really nice that we can travel again today,” said Julie, 42, who was flying to Austin, Texas from Heathrow.
“My family haven’t met my youngest child so we’re happy to be allowed to travel,” she told Reuters.
Though the rules are slightly different in the United Kingdom’s four constituent parts, restrictions are being eased in England, Scotland and Wales from Monday while they will be relaxed slightly later in Northern Ireland.
The scars of COVID-19 remain.
The UK’s official death toll is 127,679 – Europe’s highest figure and the world’s fifth largest, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The British economy last year had its worst decline in three centuries while the government spent hundreds of billions of pounds to save jobs and companies, and the Bank of England doubled its bond buying programme.
($1 = 0.7099 pounds)
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Susan Fenton and Ed Osmond)