Boris Johnson wants a haircut and a beer.
Like millions of other Britons, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to get a haircut and a beer on Saturday, when the country takes its biggest step yet out of lockdown with the reopening in England of restaurants, pubs and hairdressers, along with secular and sacred venues including cinemas and churches.
Britain is also opening up to travel, announcing Friday that it will scrap a requirement for people arriving from dozens of countries to spend 14 days in isolation. Starting July 10, quarantine will be lifted for arrivals from about 60 countries deemed “lower risk” for the coronavirus, including France, Spain, Germany and Italy — but not the United States, the world’s worst-hit country by COVID-19.
For isolation-weary Britons and cash-starved businesses, relief at easing the three-month lockdown is mixed with trepidation. Britain has the highest COVID-19 toll in Europe, with almost 44,000 confirmed deaths, and scientists say the coronavirus is still on the loose. The Office for National Statistics estimates there are 25,000 new infections a week in England. Even the usually ebullient Johnson said this week that the virus was “still circling like a shark in the water.”
“My message is for people to enjoy summer sensibly and make sure it all works,” Johnson told LBC radio on Friday. “Let’s not blow it.”
When pubs and restaurants reopen Saturday, it will be anything but business as usual.
Stringent measures in place for pubs
They will have to take contact details for each group, and people can only socialize with one other household at a time. There will be more cleaning, a ban on queuing at the bar for a drink, and reduced capacity, with patrons told to stay at least one metre apart.
“I think the vast majority of pubs and restaurants are welcoming and opening with enthusiasm,” said Jane Pendlebury, chief executive of Hospa, the Hospitality Professionals Association. “Still, the restrictions are making it tough.”
The pub and restaurant environment will have a “very different vibe,” she said.
“In those public areas, we’re used to quite often being shoulder to shoulder, almost to having to rustle up (a) space at the bar. That’s going to be so very different now.”
Some pubs are staying closed over the weekend, or even longer. Even so, police have questioned the wisdom of reopening pubs on a Saturday. Tim Clarke of the Metropolitan Police Federation warned the weekend could be “as busy as policing New Year’s Eve.”
Brian Booth, chairman of the police officers’ body the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said that before lockdown, local emergency rooms “on Friday and Saturday nights were at times akin to a circus full of drunken clowns. We do not need this once again.”
Lockdown measures remain in place in some areas
One city in England will not be joining in the reopening. Leicester, population 300,000, was sent back into lockdown this week amid a spike in coronavirus infections. Non-essential shops have been closed and pubs and restaurants won’t be reopening on Saturday.
They are also staying shut north of the border in Scotland.
Johnson’s Conservative government is increasingly at odds on virus-fighting strategy with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Scotland controls its own health policy, and Sturgeon has been more cautious about lifting lockdown than authorities in England. Pubs in Scotland can open beer gardens from Monday, but won’t be able to serve people indoors until July 15.
Scotland also hasn’t agreed to the plan to end quarantine for arrivals from “low-risk” countries, which for now applies only to England.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said countries will be coded on a traffic-light system: green for low risk, amber for medium and red for high risk. The U.S., which has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, will be in the red category, and arrivals will have to quarantine.
Guidance sometimes unclear
Caught between public health fears and a staggering economy, the British government has seemed uncertain whether to encourage people to go out or stay home. On Wednesday, the Treasury tweeted a message urging people to “grab a drink and raise a glass, pubs are reopening their doors from 4 July” — then deleted it after a shower of criticism.
Johnson has said he wants people to enjoy themselves, and plans to have a pint and get his shaggy blond locks trimmed this weekend.
He has also — belatedly, say critics — struck a more cautious note.
“Do not undo the sacrifices you have made with reckless behaviour,” Johnson told the Evening Standard newspaper. “We do not want to see businesses have to close again.”
Johnson is due to hold a news conference Friday afternoon before what the media has dubbed “Super Saturday.”
Bharat Pankhania, an expert in communicable diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School, said the government was sending “mixed messages.”
“The virus is still in circulation,” he said. “People will get infected and … we need to take the same precautions that we were taking earlier on.
“I do worry that the enormous cost of the lockdown, the pain and suffering, may be undone very, very quickly.”