After weeks of huddling under dripping table brollies and braving chilly beer gardens, pub goers can finally drink indoors tomorrow as the next stage of lifting lockdown comes in.
Some foreign holidays are also back on the cards, along with hugging, trips to the cinema and theatre and staying overnight with family and friends.
But experts urged caution as the highly-contagious Indian variant of Covid rampages across the country, sparking fears our regained freedoms may be short-lived.
There are now at least 1,300 cases of the mutation in the UK with “hotspots” in Greater Manchester, London and Glasgow. And scientists are warning it is quickly becoming dominant.
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One government adviser said the spread is putting Britain in a “perilous moment” that could put Boris Johnson ’s hopes of relaxing all restrictions by June 21.
The PM, who came under fire for not closing our borders to India earlier despite the country reporting 100,000 cases a day by April 5, said the latest lifting of curbs must be done “with a heavy dose of caution”.
He added: “We are keeping the spread of the variant first identified in India under close observation and taking swift action where infection rates are rising. I urge everyone to be cautious and take responsibility when enjoying new freedoms today in order to keep the virus at bay.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the Indian variant – which may be 50% more infectious than the Kent one – could “spread like wildfire” among the unvaccinated population as the Government stepped up the pace of the jabs roll-out.
But he insisted it was “appropriate” to push on with easing restrictions in England today. However, he would not rule out taking tougher measures if necessary – including local lockdowns in hotspot areas. As landlords and restaurant owners yesterday put the finishing touches to preparation to welcome customers back indoor, for Mr Hancock said: “We will if it’s necessary to protect people.”
Government scientific adviser and SAGE expert Professor Sir Mark Walport warned it will be “extremely important” to keep an eye on the numbers of variant cases over the next few weeks. He said: “The problem is the data takes a while to emerge, which is why there’s every grounds to be very cautious about the ability to open up in June.
“It’s fair to say it is a perilous moment. We have a variant that shows good evidence of being more transmissible and possibly significantly more transmissible.”
Speaking of today’s lifting of curbs, he added: “My advice is because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Try to socialise outside, keep social distancing, if you’re going to hug, hug cautiously.”
Hoards of people were pictured queuing near Bolton’s Essa Academy school vaccination centre yesterday as fears of regional lockdowns in the North West grew among locals. One said: “I can’t believe how many are here, it’s crazy. They’re queuing round the block for a jab.”
Public Health England revealed the area has had a sharp spike in infections since mid-April. The Indian variant now makes up the majority of new cases. Demolition worker Darren Hall, 52, said: “I thought it had all gone away, but it’s not. I’m worried that we’d be the only town in the country still locked down.”
During the pandemic lull last summer a spike of cases meant Bolton had to shut pubs and restaurants. Northern Monkey Brew Co manager Andreea Oros, 29, said: “We’ve been pretty much shut for the whole thing.”
Old Three Crowns landlady Lisa Day, 55, added: “It is quite scary for everybody. “We’ve been in it so long, everybody’s saying, ‘Not another lockdown. I’m not going to do it.’ I just think enough is enough.”
India was not added to the UK’s red list of countries until April 23 – three weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh were.
Mr Johnson has been accused of dragging his heels because he wanted to go ahead with a visit to India to secure a trade deal.
At least 20,000 passengers who could have been infected with the variant were allowed to enter Britain while he dithered.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper called for the ban on foreign travel not to be lifted today over fears of more variants coming in. She said: “I think they should be being much more cautious.”
A landlady is calling for the public to help save pubs across the UK by raising a glass in them on “Magic Monday”.
Lana Bewry, 60, who runs the Golden Anchor in Nunhead, South East London, said she has been “blessed” by the support of the public who saved her business.
She now wants everyone across the country to support their local and told The Mirror: “The customers are loving it, being out and socialising and you cannot ask for more support.
“We have made it thanks to people coming out to support us.
“All the pubs in Britain need a Magic Monday. That’s what we’re hoping for too and we are so excited. It’s a new beginning.”