LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — Pubs in England will reopen on July 4, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday, as he unveiled an easing of the coronavirus lockdown for hospitality, culture and tourism, and of social distancing measures.
The move comes as part of the next phase of the government’s reopening plan, which will allow cinemas, museums and galleries to open again to the public after three months. Restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfast (B&B) and self-catering accommodation as well as campsites have also been given the green light to reopen, as have shuttered barbers and hairdressers.
The two-meter social distancing rule to curb the spread of the coronavirus will be revoked from July 4, after complaints from companies that keeping it made business impossible. Instead, people will be advised to stay at least 1 meter (3 feet) apart — as long as they take other measures to reduce transmission of the virus, such as wearing a mask in enclosed spaces.
The prime minister imposed stay-at-home measures on March 23 but businesses were effectively shut several days beforehand, as the virus took hold.
Overall, Britain has seen nearly 43,000 deaths in the outbreak — the worst in Europe and the third-highest in the world.
On Monday, the government reported just 15 deaths — the lowest daily increase since March 15, although there is always a delay in deaths being reported over the weekend.
Johnson, who himself spent several days in intensive care with COVID-19, was cheered in parliament as he called time on the first countrywide pub closures since the 17th century.
But he said there would be “minimum contact” between staff and customers, with table service only.
Drinkers and diners would also have to give contact details in case of any local outbreak.
“I do encourage people to take advantage of the freedoms that they are rightly reacquiring,” he told lawmakers.
“But I must stress that people should act in a responsible way… observing social distancing.”
The government has come under pressure for its handling of the crisis, and from businesses keen to recoup heavy losses from the shut-down to stave off closures and job losses.
The UK economy shrank by more than a fifth in April alone, triggering fears of recession, and forcing the Bank of England into emergency stimulus measures to boost growth.
Sales of beer slumped to their lowest level on record in the first quarter of this year, with the British Beer and Pub Association warning the industry was facing a “cliff edge.”
Johnson himself acknowledged the closures on March 20 were “extraordinary” and took away “the inalienable right of freeborn people to the pub.”
Historians believe the closures could be the first time since the Great Plague of 1665 — or possibly ever — that all British pubs have shut.
But pub and restaurant-owners have said the government’s rule that people stay two meters apart is impractical and makes reopening unviable if it stayed in place.
Johnson acknowledged the rule “makes life impossible for large parts of our economy”, and said because the prevalence of the virus was falling, the distance could be cut.
“Where it is possible to keep two meters apart, people should. But where it is not, we will advise people to keep a social distance of one meter plus,” he added.
Sector by sector guidance will be published to help businesses reopen in a secure manner, he said.
England is moving quicker than the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in lifting coronavirus restrictions.
Some schoolchildren returned to classes earlier this month, and non-essential shops and services opened their doors again for business last week.
Johnson also said two households would be able to meet up indoors or outdoors from July 4. Libraries, social clubs, community centers and playgrounds can also reopen.
Places of worship can reopen for prayer and services, including weddings of up to 30 people.
Some scientists have warned the government is moving too quickly, given fears of a second wave of infection and increasing rates of community transmission in other countries.
Transport unions warned the relaxing of the two-meter rule on public transport could “significantly increase” the chance of infection and would make it “almost impossible” to enforce.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.