U.K. Leader Lifts Wide Variety of Coronavirus Restrictions

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LONDON — Three months after reluctantly and belatedly imposing a lockdown on Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that he would lift many of the restrictions — most significantly, cutting the required social distance between people in half, to one meter, or about three feet.

Declaring that “our long national hibernation is beginning to come to an end,” Mr. Johnson cleared the way for the reopening of pubs, restaurants, hotels and museums in England on July 4, which will bring the country closer in line with Germany, Italy and other European countries.

But scientists, including some who advise the government, warned that reducing the required social distance would substantially raise the risk of spreading the coronavirus in a country that is still reporting more than 1,000 new infections a day.

Mr. Johnson is yielding to intense pressure, including from members of his own Conservative Party, to restart the British economy and return society to a semblance of normalcy. The government’s scientific advisers offered a cautious endorsement of the changes, though not without reservations and only after anguished debate.

In a study released this month, the government’s scientific advisory group, known as SAGE, estimated that reducing the so-called two-meter rule to one meter could increase the rate of transmission anywhere from two to 10 times.

Those risks would be mitigated, it said, if people wore face coverings and avoided prolonged face-to-face contact. Transmission is far less likely outdoors, which is why pubs and restaurants serving indoors will be required to install plastic screens, provide adequate ventilation and collect contact information from customers. Face coverings are already mandatory on public transportation.

ImagePrime Minister Boris Johnson waited to wash his hands during a visit to a school in Bovingdon, England, on Friday.
Credit…Steve Parsons/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images

In announcing the changes in Parliament, Mr. Johnson said the rate of transmission had fallen far enough that the National Health Service was no longer at risk of being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. “We no longer face the virus spreading exponentially, though it remains in circulation,” he said.

To cheers from the handful of members in the chamber, the famously tousled prime minister took evident delight in the return of everyday rituals of British life.

“Almost as eagerly expected as a pint,” he said, ”will be a haircut, especially by me.”

Under the new plan, hairdressers in England will be able to open, as will places of worship, movie theaters, and concert halls, though they will not be allowed to stage live performances. Gyms, pools and nightclubs will remain closed.

While several countries have reduced their social distancing rules, the evidence of the effect is still open to debate. The World Health Organization advises people to keep a distance of “at least one meter,” while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recommends that they stay “at least six feet,” or two meters, apart.

“It will be much riskier to go to one meter,” said Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London, who is a member of the government advisory panel. “If the government were honest with the public, they would say, ‘This is a riskier strategy, but we’re taking it anyway because of economic reasons.’”

Indeed, other parts of Britain are diverging from England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are making their own decisions on when to ease the lockdown, with Scotland and Wales moving more slowly than England.

Mr. Johnson is expected to announce further measures this week to loosen the country’s 14-day quarantine on visitors by negotiating quarantine-free travel corridors between Britain and several European countries. That comes after intense lobbying from the embattled airline and tourism industries.

Britain imposed its lockdown in late March, far later than its neighbors, and it has been more cautious about lifting it, in part because it suffered one of the worst outbreaks of any Western country. Nearly 43,000 people have died; Mr. Johnson himself survived a serious bout of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

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Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

While the daily death toll has fallen to its lowest levels since March and the transmission rate is below one — which scientists regard as a benchmark of whether the epidemic is under control — the aggregate number of new infections continues to be high.

Still, the debate between public health and economic imperatives has clearly swung in favor of economics.

Officials fear the cost of lockdown has become unsustainable, especially after a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that the British economy could shrink by as much as 14 percent in 2020, putting it alongside Italy and France as the worst-hit economies in Europe.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 22, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


“This is clearly an economically driven decision,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University. “It feels like No. 10 is gambling that the virus will mutate to a milder version or the immunity is broader than antibody studies are showing,” she added, referring to 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office and residence.

Maintaining the precautionary measures will be challenging, particularly in pubs. Among the questions is whether they will be able to serve customers at the bar and allow them to take drinks back to their tables, and whether customers will abide by the measures after they have consumed alcohol.

“We now urgently need the detailed government guidelines so that we can check we have the correct measures in place to reopen safely for our team members and customers,” said Nick Mackenzie, the chief executive of Greene King, a chain of pubs and breweries.

Mr. Johnson’s move will also revive London’s cultural life, though questions remain about how and when the curtain can go up in theaters. The current rules allow them to screen plays or operas, but not perform them live. The government has set up working groups to try to define how they can operate safely.

The announcement will not allay fears of a crisis in Britain’s art world. Nicholas Hytner, the former head of the National Theater, told the BBC that “the entire arts sector is on the brink of ruin.” He said it “needed massive, unprecedented and immediate investment” to avoid waves of layoffs and bankruptcies.

Museums have been similarly hard hit. Jenny Waldman, director of the Art Fund, which supports museums, said, “The lockdown closures have hit museums’ finances incredibly hard — some may never reopen.”

Britain has lagged Germany, France, and Italy in reopening museums, and institutions like the Tate and the British Museum have yet to give details of when they might open. In a statement, they said they would work with the government “to see how and when we can open our doors again in a financially sustainable manner.”

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Credit…Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As if to symbolize a turning of the page, Downing Street held the last of its regular weekday coronavirus briefings, at which Mr. Johnson or one of his ministers took questions, alongside the government’s scientific and medical advisers.

Mr. Johnson spoke cheerfully about how he wanted to go back to the theater and play village cricket — two activities that are not fully possible, even under the looser restrictions — while his advisers struck a far more guarded tone.

“Two meters is safer than one meter,” said the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned that the virus would afflict Britain through at least next spring. “It’s going to be a long haul,” he said.

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

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