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UK's Johnson voices optimism over lockdown easing route

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wears a Welsh flag face mask during a visit to Barry Island, Wales, as part of the Welsh Conservative Party's Senedd election campaign, Monday, May 3, 2021. (Matthew Horwood/PA via AP)

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday there's a “good chance” that social distancing rules in England will be scrapped on June 21, a potential boon to hard-hit pubs and cinemas.

Johnson told reporters in the north England town of Hartlepool where he is campaigning before a special election on Thursday that the government's lockdown easing plans remains on track. That's due to sharp fall in new coronavirus infections — down to below 2,000 a day from nearly 70,000 a day at the peak of the second surge in January — and the rapid rollout of vaccines.

On Monday, the National Health Service delivered its 50 millionth vaccine, with around 52% of the British population having received at least one dose and around a quarter having received two jabs.

“You are seeing the results of that really starting to show up in the epidemiology," Johnson said.

Under its road map to ease restrictions — which Johnson insists is dependent on “data not dates” — the government is set to lift further restrictions on May 17, such as allowing people to go inside a pub and restaurant and to allow some foreign travel.

On June 21, all other limits on social contact will be potentially lifted, including the rule that requires people to be at least 1 meter (3 feet) away from anyone outside their household, provided other protective measures are in place, such as mask-wearing or meeting outdoors. This is known as the “1 meter-plus” rule.

Johnson said there's “a good chance” the rule will be ditched beginning June 21.

“That is still dependent on the data, we can’t say it categorically yet, we have got to look at the epidemiology as we progress," he said. "But that’s what it feels like to me right now.”

Getting rid of the 1 meter-plus rule would change the financial dynamics for Britain's hospitality and cultural sectors, which have been one of the most hard-hit during the pandemic. Because people can't sit right next to each other inside or outside, pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theaters can't host as many people as they used to.

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, welcomed Johnson’s comments, saying they give the sector hope of a return to normality.

“Given pubs are financially unviable under the current restrictions they face, being able to reopen without any restrictions at all from June 21 is going to be vital to their survival," she said. “Our recovery only begins when the restrictions are removed."

Although restrictions on social distancing in Britain may be scrapped, other measures could stay in place. One-way systems, screens and mask-wearing while moving around might remain for hospitality venues.

A spokesman for the U.K. Cinema Association said he hoped the government would not require moviegoers to wear masks.

“We strongly believe that our exemplary record on safety — with not a single case of COVID traced back to a U.K. venue — and our ability to manage the movement of cinema-goers in modern, highly ventilated indoor environments offer ample evidence that any relaxation from June 21 can be undertaken safely without the need for further ongoing restrictions," he said.

Government figures on Monday showed that the U.K. reported just one new coronavirus-related death, down from over 1,800 in one day in January. Although the daily death toll has plummeted in recent months, the U.K. still has Europe's highest virus-related toll at more than 127,500 dead.


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