UK to outline more reopening plans as virus toll eases

A sign requesting people stay two metres apart is displayed in Kingston upon Thames, south west London, Monday, June 22, 2020. The two-metre social distancing rule will be under review as the UK relax coronavirus lockdown measures implemented to stem the spread of the virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to outline plans Tuesday to allow Britons to go to a movie, enjoy pints in a pub and get a haircut — the latest easing of lockdown measures imposed three months ago to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Johnson will speak to Parliament on Tuesday afternoon after meeting his Cabinet in the morning.

The lockdown loosening, expected to take effect on July 4, comes amid intense pressure from businesses to relax a government requirement that people who are indoors must stay 2 meters (6 1/2 feet) apart.

Britain’s pubs and restaurants, many of which operate in small spaces, are urging a reduction to 1 meter (3 feet) — the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization — saying without it many will go under.

The social distancing requirement is also a concern for educators hoping to safely open British schools in the fall.

The Conservative government is desperate to restart the stalled British economy, and that desire is likely to be reflected in guidance to re-open businesses ranging from hotels to hairdressers.

But some scientists are worried that the government is reopening the economy too fast and that a track-and-trace system meant to quickly stamp out any outbreaks is not fully functional.

The number of daily deaths and new infections in the U.K. has fallen significantly from its April peak, but the country is still confirming 1,000 or more new COVID-19 cases a day.

“This is far too premature,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government. “To come out of (lockdown) too early is extremely risky.”

Britain has Europe’s highest death toll from the virus, with almost 42,700 confirmed dead. That is also the third-highest death toll in the world after the United States and Brazil, which both have much larger populations.

Figures released Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics show both the scale of the outbreak in Britain and its retreat. The office said there were 1,114 death involving the coronavirus in England and Wales in the week to June 12, the lowest number for nine weeks. The total number of weekly deaths from all causes also fell but remains 5.9% higher than the five-year average.

The total number of excess deaths in the U.K. since the outbreak began stands at more than 65,000. Excess deaths are are widely considered to be the best gauge of the virus’ impact as they provide a clear guide over historical periods and include all-cause mortality.

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris also urged the British government to be cautious.

“The U.K. has brought a very difficult outbreak right down,” she told the BBC. “Very good news in the last couple of days about the limitation in cases, and far, far fewer people dying. So now is the moment to celebrate that by being super careful.”

The measures being announced by Johnson apply only in England. Other parts of the U.K. —Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are all following slightly different lockdown plans.

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