Social distancing and the 1 metre-plus rule could be scrapped next month, the prime minister has suggested, as he confirmed the next step of England’s lockdown easing but said families and friends should think carefully before deciding to hug.
Heralding a “very considerable” easing of measures, the prime minister said that from next Monday pubs and restaurants can open their doors to serve customers inside, and people can gather in groups of 30 outside.
The announcement came as England marked its first day since July with no reported deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, and the Covid alert level was lowered from 4 to 3.
Johnson welcomed the penultimate stage in England’s roadmap back to normality as “a step towards that moment when we learn to live responsibly with Covid” and where people can “cease to rely on detailed government edicts”.
Hugging close friends and family members would be a “personal choice” but he said factors such as whether someone had had one or two doses of the vaccine, and whether they have had time to develop immunity, should be taken into consideration.
Addressing a Downing Street press conference on Monday, the prime minister said: “You should do it if you think it’s appropriate and if you think the risks are very, very low. But you should exercise care and common sense. Clearly with unvaccinated people, there must be a greater risk of transmission than those who’ve had vaccination.”
He added: “When it comes to social distancing from 21 June, I look at the data very carefully and I think at the moment, it looks to me as though we may be able to dispense with the 1 metre-plus rule. That’s not yet decided, it’s not yet clear – we will have to wait and see.”
The prime minister was urged not to “pass the buck by outsourcing responsibility to the public on social distancing” by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who told him to “show leadership by publishing clear guidance on whether it is safe to hug relatives and friends, based on the latest scientific evidence”.
Meanwhile, Johnson hinted that a plan to introduce Covid status certificates for domestic settings may be scrapped, promising he would say before the end of May “what role there could be – if any” for the documents, so that businesses would have time to prepare for the final lockdown easing stage from 21 June, when the government has said “all legal limits on social contact” may be removed.
While Johnson said the UK remains on track for the final stage, Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, noted a concerning growth of cases in the UK of the coronavirus variant first identified in India. He said while it had risen from “very low levels” over the past two weeks, it has gone up very sharply and could be more transmissible than the Kent variant that is now dominant in the UK.
Documents released by Sage on Monday noted that maintaining control of the level of transmission of serious variants would be more difficult with fewer measures in place.
“A variant which either substantially escapes immunity or is highly transmissible (more so than B117 [the Kent variant]) could lead to a very significant wave of infections, potentially larger than that seen in January 2021 if there were no interventions,” minutes of a Sage meeting on 5 May note.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, also hinted some restrictions may remain beyond 21 June – or be reintroduced in the winter, if infections start rising again, saying: “Things like face coverings on public transport might be necessary.”
Other restrictions due to be relaxed from next Monday include removing the cap on numbers attending funerals, as long as they go ahead in a Covid-secure way, and letting indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas open.
While the ban on international travel is being lifted, ministers are still encouraging people not to travel abroad, apart from to the 12 territories on the “green list” where quarantine on return is not necessary.
Dancing will remain banned at weddings but university students will be allowed to return to in-person teaching from 17 May. In care homes, residents will be able to have up to five named visitors and be entitled to make low-risk visits out of the home.
In a sign of the diminishing threat of coronavirus in the UK, the four nations’ chief medical officers agreed that the Covid alert level should move from level 4 to level 3, signalling transmission of the virus is no longer deemed to be high or rising exponentially.
UK-wide, there were four fatalities registered on Monday of people who tested positive for Covid in the past 28 days, while a further 2,357 cases were also reported. Infection rates are at their lowest level since last September, and deaths and numbers of people in hospital have also dropped to levels seen last July.
Surge testing has been deployed in Kensington, west London, amid a “small number” of cases of the South African variant being found. It follows a similar move in Bolton over the weekend, because of a newly discovered cluster of cases of the Indian variant.