London — The people of Great Britain were given the go-ahead on Monday to share a hug, drink a pint with dinner indoors, and return to movie theaters and playhouses. But as the U.K. emerges from the worst of the, the spread of the so-called Indian variant of COVID-19 in England is causing concern, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned people to embrace the easing of restrictions “with a heavy dose of caution.”
England was put under a third nation-wide lockdown in January. The dark, cold winter months were hard for many people as the country hunkered down to get over a deadly wave of infections fueled by holiday gatherings.
But restrictions have been easing this spring as the mass-vaccination drive has ramped up. Nearly 70% of the adult population in the U.K. has had at least a first shot of a coronavirus vaccine. The number of new infections confirmed daily has fallen from almost 70,000 during the winter peak, to an average of around 2,300 over the last week.
About a month ago non-essential shops, gyms and beauty salons were allowed to reopen, and restaurants had been allowed to serve food and drinks outdoors for the last month, too, as part of what the government calls the “roadmap to freedom.”
On Monday, social distancing guidelines were relaxed even further. People can now meet in groups of up to six indoors — including to eat at bars and restaurants — and up to 30 outdoors.
Brits can also avoid a mandatory quarantine period if they travel back from a limited list of countries and territories, including Portugal, Iceland and the far-flung Falkland Islands.
Johnson warned, however, that any surge in cases could scuttle plans for the next stage in the easing of restrictions, set for June 21, and he reminded people that while hugging was now permitted, they should proceed with caution as that kind of close contact could still spread COVID-19.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the U.K. had registered more than 1,300 cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in India, and added that it was “quite likely” to become the dominant strain in Britain.
He said he had a “high degree of confidence,” citing recent research by Oxford University, that the current coronavirus vaccines do provide protection against the Indian variant, as well as the others, but that more data was still needed to determine exactly how much of a threat it poses.
According to the World Health Organization, the Indian variant has now been detected in at least 44 countries. The CDC has confirmed cases in the U.S., but given high vaccination rates it hasn’t voiced much alarm about the strain.
Some scientists believe the Indian variant could be as much as 50% more transmissible than the strain first discovered in the U.K.
British authorities have started “surge testing” to find cases of the variant in some regions, and they’ve ramped up vaccination in areas where cases are rising to try to avoid yet another wave of infections.