LONDON – Drinks were raised in toasts and reunited friends hugged each other as thousands of U.K. pubs and restaurants opened Monday for indoor service for the first time since early January. Yet the prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans.
Theaters, leisure venues and museums were also reopening as part of the latest step in easing nationwide restrictions, raising hopes that Britain's economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic.
Andy Frantzeskos, a chef at Nopi, an upmarket Mediterranean restaurant in London's Soho district, said he felt “a bit of anxiousness ... but more excitement than anything.”
“It’s been a long time coming since lockdown, so we’re all happy to be back and want to cook some good food,” he said.
The government also relaxed guidance on close personal contact — meaning people can hug friends and family they don't live with — and lifted a ban on foreign holidays, although only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations that don't require 10 days of quarantine upon return. Thousands of Britons got up early to check in for the first flights to Portugal, which is on the safe list.
But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism amid memories of how the U.K. variant swept the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown. Public health officials are urging people to continue to observe social distancing, even though the situation is different now because almost 70% of British adults have received at least one vaccine dose.
“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Twitter video. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease."
Monday's reopening allows people in England to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in rainy outdoor beer gardens. Rules were also being eased in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland to follow next week.
The next phase in Britain’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, when remaining restrictions are set to be removed. Johnson has warned that a big surge in COVID-19 cases could scuttle those plans.
Confirmed new virus cases have risen over the past week, though they remain far below the winter's peak. New infections averaged about 2,200 per day over the past seven days compared with nearly 70,000 a day at the peak in January. Recent deaths averaged just over 10 a day, down from 1,820 on Jan. 20.
Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest figure in Europe.
Scientists say the new variant, formally known as B.1.617.2 and first found in India, is more transmissible than the U.K.’s main strain, though it is unclear by how much.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the variant from India had been found in at least 86 local areas. The largest concentration was in Bolton and Blackburn in northwest England, where health officials, backed by the army, are carrying out surge testing and surge vaccinations.
Hancock said it was “reassuring” that early data suggests existing vaccines work against the variant from India. He said most people hospitalized with the new strain had been eligible for a vaccine but had not gotten a shot.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, said almost 1 million people were returning to work on Monday, but that businesses were counting on the final step out of lockdown taking place on June 21.
“We’ve already lost 12,000 businesses," she said. "There’s been an almost 1-in-5 contraction in restaurants in city centers, 1-in-10 restaurants lost over the whole of the country. So these are businesses clinging on by their fingertips, and they have no fuel left in the tank. If those social distancing restrictions remain, they are simply not viable.”
Ian Snowball, owner of the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, northern England, said it was nice to be inside again, rather than facing the island nation's unpredictable weather.
“I don’t have to have a hoodie or a coat on any more — it’s great,’’ he said. “And hopefully we don’t have to go back outside again."
Other Britons couldn't wait to leave altogether.
Keith and Janice Tomsett, a retired couple in their 70s, were on their way to the Portuguese island of Madeira. They booked their holiday in October "on the off-chance” it could go ahead. They had followed all the testing guidelines and were fully vaccinated.
“After 15 months of being locked up, this is unbelievably good,'' Keith Tomsett said. “It was even worth getting up at 3 o’clock this morning.”
Jo Kearney and Pan Pylas contributed to this story from London.