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Britain Begins to Unlock: Live Updates


Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

The beginning of the end of Britain’s lockdown — one of the longest and most stringent in the world — came with a pint at a pub.

Just past the stroke of midnight on Monday, a few select establishments in England served their first drink since being forced to close in January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns were imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Later in the morning, thousands of gyms, salons and retail stores opened their doors for the first time in months, bringing a frisson of life to streets long frozen in a state of suspended animation.

Thousands more pubs will resume business at noon, and with the return of one of Britain’s most cherished institutions — even if limited to outdoor service — the country took its first major step in a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government has said that it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following separate but similar timetables, under which some restrictions eased on Monday in England will remain in place a while longer.

Despite chilly weather with occasional snow flurries, the moment was greeted with an enthusiasm born of more than a year of deprivation — as the once unimaginable notion of conscripting to government decree has become a way of life.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a major step forward in our road map to freedom.”

In the first weeks of the global health crisis — when the World Health Organization was still debating whether to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — a new word entered the popular lexicon.

Lockdown in English. Le confinement in French. El confinamiento in Spanish. But first came fengcheng in China, literally meaning to lock down a city.

At the time, as images from ghostly streets of Wuhan, China, started to grab the world’s attention and it became clear that the virus respected no national borders, there was a debate about whether Western democracies could — or should — resort to such extreme measures.

As hospitals struggled to deal with a flood of patients and death tolls soared, the debate was overtaken by the reality that traditional methods of infectious disease control, like testing and contact tracing, had failed.

Britain, which held out longer than many of its European neighbors, entered its first national lockdown on March 26, 2020.

Since then, lockdown has come to mean many things to many people — dictated as often by individual circumstance and risk assessment as government decree.

While no country matched China’s draconian measures, liberal democracies have been engaged in a yearlong effort to balance economic, political and public health concerns.

Last spring, that meant that much of the world looked alike, with about four billion people — half of humanity — living under some form of stay-at-home order.

A year later, national approaches to the virus vary wildly. And no region has relied on lockdowns to the extent Europe has.

Although it is difficult to compare lockdowns, since the use of the word differs in different places, researchers at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government have developed a system ranking the rules’ stringency. They found that Britain has spent 175 days at its “maximum stringency level.”

“In this sense, we can say that the U.K. is globally unique in spending the longest period of time at a very high level of stringency,” said Thomas Hale, an associate professor of global public policy at Oxford.

Though there was still a winter chill in the air Monday morning, people in Britain flocked to stores and restaurants. After so many false dawns, there was a widespread hope that, this time, there would be no going back.

Customers with their first pints of beer outside The Kentish Belle in London shortly after midnight on Monday.
Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

One man showed up in his robe. Another couple had made a two-hour trek from a neighboring county.

A little over a dozen patrons, shivering in the Arctic chill gripping England, stood at the ready as Nicholas Hair, owner of The Kentish Belle, counted the seconds until the clock ticked over to a minute past midnight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats!” he said to applause.

Then, for the first time in months, he poured and served a pint.

“I mean, I’ve not seen my friends like this together for so long,” said Ryan Osbourne, 22. “When we have an opportunity like today to bring my friends together, it’s incredible.”

Not all pubs will be allowed to reopen on Monday — only the estimated 15,000 with outdoor space, for outdoor service only. And most of those will open later in the day.

But Mr. Hair had secured a special license to open The Kentish Belle, a small pub specializing in artisanal beers in a quiet southeast London neighborhood, at the earliest possible opportunity.

Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

He was circled by news crews as he prepared to open.

The past year had been “dreadful,” he said, adding that he had not been able to access government funding for the past two months. “There are a lot of businesses like this that won’t survive.”

Uma Nunn, 43, traveled from Surrey to attend the night’s festivities. “We just wanted to show our support,” she said.

Her husband, Benjamin Nunn, a beer writer who spent the last open day for pubs at The Kentish Belle, said he thought it only fitting to return for the first. “This is one of the big things in my life, beer and music,” he said. “Now to be able to get that started up again, it’s energizing, it’s exciting.”

“It’s the middle of he night but hey, hopefully this will never happen again,” he added.

Treating a Covid-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Homerton University Hospital in London, in January.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British lockdown that is being eased on Monday is the nation’s third. But it was first aimed at containing a variant of the coronavirus — offering an early warning to the world of the threat posed by the evolution of the virus and the difficulties in trying to control this particular form.

When the variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first discovered late last year in the southeastern English county of Kent, much about it was a mystery.

It appeared to be more contagious, but to what degree? Was it more deadly? How far had it spread?

The picture is becoming clearer. The most recent estimates suggest it is about 60 percent more contagious than the original form of the virus, and significantly more deadly.

That same variant is now spreading across continental Europe, prompting governments like those of France and Italy to impose new national lockdowns. The variant has also added urgency to the vaccination campaign in the United States — which is getting doses into millions of arms every day but still might not be fast enough to avoid yet another wave.

The vaccines being used in many countries have shown to be effective against it.

Britain’s vaccination campaign was launched with an urgency dictated by the moment, prioritizing first doses to spread a degree of protection as quickly and widely as possible.

Even after the lockdown was put in place, the variant propelled the country’s daily fatality rates to levels not seen since the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April.

On Friday, the number of people with Covid-19 on their death certificate was just shy of 150,000.

But another statistic now offers hope. Nearly 32 million people have been given at least one dose of a vaccine — roughly half the adult population.

Officials are confident the combined effects of the lockdown and mass vaccination will provide a wall of protection. But, as England’s chief medical officer Chris Witty warned, it is a “leaky wall.”

A large majority of people under the age of 50 have yet to be offered a jab. And with supplies constrained around the world, eligibility is unlikely to be expanded for weeks or more.

Decorating a restaurant before its reopening on April 12.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

For the past year, the British economy has yo-yoed with the government’s pandemic restrictions. On Monday, as shops, outdoor dining, gyms and hairdressers reopened across England, the next bounce began.

The pandemic has left Britain with deep economic wounds that have shattered historical records: the worst recession in three centuries and record levels of government borrowing outside wartime.

Last March and April, there was an economic slump unlike anything ever seen before when schools, workplaces and businesses abruptly shut. Then a summertime boom, when restrictions eased and the government helped usher people out of their homes with a popular meal-discount initiative called “Eat Out to Help Out.”

Beginning in the fall, a second wave of the pandemic stalled the recovery, though the economic impact wasn’t as severe as it had been last spring. Still, the government has spent about 344 billion pounds, or $471 billion, on its pandemic response. To pay for it, the government has borrowed a record sum and is planning the first increase in corporate taxes since 1974 to help rebalance its budget.

By the end of the year, the size of Britain’s economy will be back where it was at the end of 2019, the Bank of England predicts. “The economy is poised like a coiled spring,” Andy Haldane, the central bank’s chief economist said in February. “As its energies are released, the recovery should be one to remember after a year to forget.”

Even though a lot of retail spending has shifted online, reopening shop doors will make a huge difference to many businesses.

Daunt Books, a small chain of independent bookstores, was busy preparing to reopen for the past week, including offering a click-and-collect service in all of its stores. Throughout the lockdown, a skeleton crew “worked harder than they’ve ever worked before, just to keep a trickle” of revenue coming in from online and telephone orders, said Brett Wolstencroft, the bookseller’s manager.

“The worst moment for us was December,” Mr. Wolstencroft said, when shops were shut in large parts of the country beginning on Dec. 20. “Realizing you’re losing your last bit of Christmas is exceptionally tough.”

He says he is looking forward to having customers return to browse the shelves and talk to the sellers. “We’d sort of turned ourselves into a warehouse” during the lockdown, he said, “but that doesn’t work for a good bookshop.”

With the likes of pubs, hairdressers, cinemas and hotels shut for months on end, Brits have built up more than £180 billion in excess savings, according to government estimates. That money, once people can get out more, is expected to be the engine of this recovery — even though economists are debating how much of this windfall will end up in the tills of these businesses.

Monday is just one phase of the reopening. Pubs can serve customers only in outdoor seating areas, and less than half, about 15,000, have such facilities. Hotels will also remain closed for at least another month alongside indoor dining, museums and theaters. The next reopening phase is scheduled for May 17.

Over all, two-fifths of hospitality businesses have outside space, said Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of U.K. Hospitality, a trade group.

“Monday is a really positive start,” she said. “It helps us to get businesses gradually back open, get staff gradually back off furlough and build up toward the real reopening of hospitality that will be May 17.”



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