U.K. government gives permission to hug again as lockdown to ease in England next week

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday gave the green light to cautious hugging and the serving of pints inside pubs after months of strict restrictions as he set out the next phase of easing coronavirus lockdown in England.

PM says families, close friends can make their own choices on social contact but urges caution

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces changes to lockdown rules in England at a virtual news conference in London on Monday. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday gave the green light to cautious hugging and the serving of pints inside pubs after months of strict restrictions as he set out the next phase of easing coronavirus lockdown in England.

Johnson confirmed that England could continue to the next stage of his four-step plan to bring the country out of lockdown by the summer, as the COVID-19 situation improved thanks to the rollout of vaccines and social restriction measures.

"This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further," Johnson told a news conference.

"We are announcing the single biggest step on our road map, and it will allow us to do many of the things that we've yearned to do for a long time."

Pubs, restaurants to reopen indoors

Since the lockdown started to ease in recent weeks as part of a plan the government insists is being driven by "data, not dates," the mixing of households was only allowed outdoors, such as in a garden or restaurant patio, provided that physical distancing was followed.

Under Step 3, starting on May 17, people will be permitted to meet up indoors for the first time in months, in groups of up to six people or two full households together.

Pubs, cafés and restaurants will be able to host customers indoors, also for the first time in months and subject to certain rules.

Other indoor entertainment like cinemas and sports venues will also be able to resume activity next week.

Johnson said that the government would allow families and close friends to make their own choices on social contact, but urged people not to throw caution to the wind, and said physical distancing must continue in workplaces, shops and restaurants.

"Whoever I hug, I can assure you, it will be done with caution and restraint," Johnson said, adding that the "one-metre- plus" physical distancing rule in businesses might be dispensed with in the next stage of easing on June 21.

He appeared to rule out accelerating the end of restrictions, saying the success of Britain's road map thus far had been helped by the ability to gather and monitor data.

"It's by being prudent and being cautious that we've been able to make the progress that we have," he said.

COVID-19 alert level lowered

The reopening will apply to England only, with the semi-autonomous governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales setting out their own rules.

People sit at tables set up outside a pub in London's Soho on April 12, the day that restaurants and pubs were allowed to reopen for outdoor patronage following months of lockdown. (Alberto Pezzali/The Associated Press)

On Monday, the United Kingdom's chief medical officers also lowered the COVID-19 alert level, meaning that an epidemic is in general circulation but transmission is no longer high or rising exponentially.

In a statement, the medical officers said physical distancing and the rapid vaccine rollout had helped to bring coronavirus cases and daily deaths down sharply. Two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom have had a first vaccine, and one-third have had both doses.

"However COVID is still circulating with people catching and spreading the virus every day, so we all need to continue to be vigilant," they said. "This remains a major pandemic globally."

According to Johns Hopkins University data, the U.K. has the fifth-highest death toll in the world from COVID-19 with 127,869 fatalities.

But new infections have dropped dramatically. On Monday, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all reported zero new deaths due to COVID-19, according to official data on the U.K. government's website. Wales reported four new deaths.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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