UK takes big leap in easing virus curbs

Drinks have been raised in toasts as people in parts of the UK were allowed to meet in pubs again.
Drinks have been raised in toasts as people in parts of the UK were allowed to meet in pubs again.

People in England, Scotland and Wales can sit indoors in pubs and restaurants and can hug each other again in the biggest single lifting of coronavirus restrictions since the start of the UK's successful vaccination campaign.

While bars and restaurants in England and Wales reopened their indoor seating areas for the first time in months on Monday, Scottish venues where this was already possible can now serve alcohol indoors again.

Across Britain, larger groups of people can also meet socially: for indoors the limit in England is now up to six people or two households; for outdoors the maximum is 30.

After consistent guidance since spring last year to avoid direct contact with people not in their own family or so-called "support bubble," UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised citizens that they can now make their own "informed decisions" and be "cautious" when it comes to hugging loved ones.

Other recreational venues such as cinemas, museums, theatres and concert halls were also allowed to reopen in England, Scotland and Wales, although there are capacity limits on large events.

A highly anticipated lifting of the international travel ban has gone into effect in England and Wales, allowing people to travel based on a traffic light grading system.

For "green" countries, British travellers do not have to quarantine when they return home if they test negatively for coronavirus; "amber" or "red" countries mean people do have to quarantine, in the latter case in specific government-approved hotels.

Green list countries include Australia, Brunei and New Zealand but also countries closer to home like Portugal and Iceland.

The UK's health department said that people who are fully vaccinated would still have to take the COVID-19 tests and quarantine when returning from a green, amber or red list country.

Two areas of Scotland - Glasgow and Moray - will maintain stricter restrictions, such as no meeting in private homes and maintaining distancing, due to a rise in local cases of the coronavirus.

Simon Thomas, the chief executive of London's Hippodrome Casino, said he felt "elated" and "knackered" after reopening the casino's doors at midnight following a five-month closure.

"When I walked out last night to cut the chains off the door and saw such a huge crowd of people - the queue went round the block - who were turning out on a rainy Sunday night, despite the weather, it just gave me such confidence for the future," he told DPA.

"We're here to tell the world London's West End is back in business."

About 500 people were at the casino, which usually has a capacity of 2500 without physical-distancing, for its opening night.

Will Lefuvre, pub manager at The Cambrian Tap in Cardiff, Wales, added that he felt "confident" about the pub reopening but remained cautious.

"I've bought enough alcohol to start serving, but not enough that, if we have to close again, I'm losing a lot," he said.

Despite the lifting of restrictions, leaders in Scotland and England still urged people to be cautious in their behaviour following a rise in cases of the Indian variant of the coronavirus.

"This is a long awaited moment but remember that the virus still poses a big threat, so please continue to be cautious and very careful," Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted.

Northern Ireland will review its restrictions later this week, with a view to easing similar restrictions from next Monday.

Australian Associated Press