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Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

(Libby Jones, right, with her colleague Shannon Maiden, both nurses from Great Ormond Street hospital who have just finished an overnight shift, have a pint of cider at the Shakespeare’s Head pub, which will be reopening for the first time to serve indoor customers since the end of the latest coronavirus lockdown, in London, Monday, May 17, 2021. AP Photo: Alastair Grant)

By DANICA KIRKA, LONDON (AP):- Pubs and restaurants across much of the U.K. opened for indoor service for the first time since early January on Monday, even as the prime minister urged people to be cautious amid the spread of a more contagious COVID-19 variant.

The latest step in the gradual easing of nationwide restrictions imposed on Jan. 4 also includes the reopening of theaters, sports venues and museums, raising hopes that the economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. The government is also relaxing guidance on close personal contact, such as hugging, and permitting international travel, though only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations.

But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism for pubs and hugs amid memories of how another variant swept across the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown. Public health officials and the government are urging people to continue to observe social distancing and hygiene guidance, even though they say the situation is different now because almost 70% of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video posted on Twitter. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease, so you should think about the risks.”

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following similar but slightly different reopening paths.

Monday’s reopening allows people to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in outdoor beer gardens or huddling around sidewalk tables, as only outdoor service was permitted after the rules were initially eased last month. The next phase in Britain’s reopening is scheduled for June 21, when all of the remaining restrictions are set to be removed. Johnson has said a big surge in COVID-19 cases could scuttle those plans.

Both confirmed new cases and coronavirus-related deaths have risen over the past week, though they remain well below the peak reported in late December and early January.

New infections averaged about 2,300 per day over the past seven days compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter peak, according to government statistics. Deaths averaged just over 10 a day during the same period, down from a peak of 1,820 on Jan. 20.

Britain has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest figure in Europe.

Despite concern about the new variant, people are venturing out. Some pubs opened at midnight, ready to scoop up any trade.

Ian Snowball, owner of the Showtime Bar in Huddersfield, northern England, said it was nice to be inside again, rather than facing the island nation’s unpredictable weather.

“I don’t have to have a hoodie or a coat on any more – it’s great,” he said. “And hopefully we don’t have to go back outside again, hopefully this is the end of it now.”

Other Britons couldn’t wait to leave altogether. Holidaymakers got up early to check in for the first flights to green list destinations such as Portugal.

Keith and Janice Tomsett, a retired couple in their 70s, were on their way to the Portuguese island of Madeira. They booked their holiday in October “on the offchance” it could go ahead. They had followed all the testing guidelines and were fully vaccinated.

“After 15 months of being locked up this is unbelievably good,″ Keith Tomsett said. “It was even worth getting up at 3 o’clock this morning.”

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