Hugs and indoor pints on UK 'Freedom Monday' despite variant fears

·4 min read

From pints indoors to cinema screenings and hugs with loved ones, most of Britain saw a significant easing of coronavirus restrictions on Monday, despite new fears over a more transmissible Indian variant.

The widely welcomed lifting of many curbs on indoor mixing across England, Wales and most of Scotland was dubbed "Freedom Monday" by The Sun tabloid.

At the North Western pub in Liverpool, a masked barman pulled pints and customers tucked into full English breakfasts of bacon, eggs, sausage and beans.

Visitors also returned to cinemas, galleries, museums and theatres, while fitness classes resumed and sports venues opened their doors for the first time in months.

Diners and drinkers trickled back into London hub Leicester Square, but the many boarded-up units were a reminder of the pandemic's destructive force.

"What's nice is to see people we don't know. Seeing people happy, you can see people smiling and enjoying themselves," said Yara Mahran, 24, shortly before heading into the Vue cinema.

Nearby Chinatown was bustling, while gamblers, including 57-year-old Ian Jones and his poker buddies, returned to the table for the first time in over a year.

"For me it (poker) was a way of life," said Jones. "With lockdown, I was just so distraught."

- Hugging again -

British holidaymakers began arriving in Portugal as travel restrictions to selected countries were lifted, providing some respite after months of stay-at-home measures, and a boost to the beleaguered airline and travel sectors.

Most anticipated, though, was the removal of social distancing within private homes, allowing family members forced apart during the pandemic to hug again.

"I actually feel a wee bit emotional saying this... you can hug your loved ones again," said Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it "another milestone in our roadmap out of lockdown". But he still urged caution, warning: "Remember that close contact, such as hugging, is a direct way of transmitting this disease."

Britain's next step to completely lift restrictions is due on June 21, but that is under threat because of rising cases of the coronavirus variant that first emerged in India.

More than 36.5 million people have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the UK, and 20 million two doses -- but ministers want a greater take-up to prevent further delays to the full reopening.

- 'Body blow' -

Some restaurants such as London's Hard Rock Cafe hailed the expanded reopening, after welcoming back outdoor diners five weeks ago.

But the Night Time Industries Association, an industry grouping representing nightclubs and other late-night venues, warned any delay to the June 21 target would be a "body blow".

Even as measures were lifted, second vaccine doses were being brought forward as a precaution to protect the over-50s and clinically vulnerable people.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said emerging evidence suggested the vaccines approved for use in the UK were effective against the Indian variant.

Nationwide cases of the strain have risen from 1,313 to 2,323 in the last week.

The rise is centred around the northern English towns of Bolton and Blackburn, which account for around a fifth of the UK variant infections and have a significant population of South Asian heritage.

Hancock said rapid response teams had descended on the area over the weekend, visiting 35,000 people to distribute tests and ramp up vaccinations.

He noted the majority of the 19 people in hospital in Bolton with the new variant had been eligible for vaccination but had not yet come forward.

"To anyone who feels hesitant about getting the vaccine right across the country, just look at what's happening in Bolton," Hancock told lawmakers, urging everybody eligible to get jabbed.

The government, which launched a new publicity campaign Monday encouraging people to open windows when meeting indoors to curb the virus, has warned the variant could "spread like wildfire amongst the unvaccinated groups".

It has not ruled out renewed localised restrictions.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told Sky News he wanted "flexibility to give younger people the vaccine in parts of London where we're concerned about this strain".

Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, and the northeastern Moray area are maintaining existing restrictions due to a surge in cases linked to the Indian variant.