After a long hard winter of isolation, people in England were today finally free to meet friends and family outdoors, but they were last night warned against hugging.
Boris Johnson has urged Brits to be cautious as lockdown rules are eased amid fears of a new Covid wave arriving from Europe.
Millions of people in England were reunited with loved ones outdoors yesterday for the first time in months.
But the Prime Minister admitted it was unclear how robust the UK’s defences would be against a new wave which could bring new variants resistant to the vaccines.
Government scientists warned that people still need to keep their distance from loved ones – and avoid hugging their grandchildren in case they transmitted the disease.
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Mr Johnson told a No 10 briefing: “What we don’t know is exactly how strong our fortifications are, how robust our defences are against another wave.
“We have seen what is happening with our European friends. Historically, at least there has been a time lag and then we have had a wave ourselves.
“That is why I stress the importance of everybody maintaining the discipline people have shown for so long”.
Ministers will tomorrow study the rise in cases in France “very closely” at an official Covid O meeting where they could consider adding the country to the UK’s banned “red list”.
France is currently experiencing 36,000 cases a day, while there are 22,000 a day in Italy and 16,000 a day in Germany. The UK recorded 4,654 cases yesterday.
Another 23 people died from coronavirus, while the number of first vaccine doses topped 30m.
Matt Hancock declared “the door is not shut” on foreign holidays this summer, but said it depended on crucial evidence due in coming weeks.
The Health Secretary cast fresh doubt on whether trips abroad will be allowed, after reports they could take until August to start.
The PM’s caution is a sign that he has learned some of the lessons of last year when critics say he delayed putting the country into lockdown and lifted restrictions too quickly.
Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty admitted there was a “high likelihood” of a spike in cases as restrictions were eased – but he said these would be “modest” if people followed social distancing guidelines.
“I think it would not be realistic to think there will be no impact,” he added.
He said that while vaccines provided a greater degree of protection there was still “some degree of vulnerability” for elderly relatives.
And he said the “wall of vaccination”, which was currently “kind of leaky”, would get stronger once more people had their second doses.
Mr Johnson claimed that schools reopening had already caused the graphs to “curl a bit like old British Rail sandwiches” among younger age groups.
He was unable to rule out another lockdown next winter.
“I don’t see anything in the data right now that would cause us to deviate from the roadmap but we need to remain humble in the face of nature and be prepared to do whatever it takes to protect the British public,” he said.
After months apart, millions of people in England can now meet with six people or two households outdoors.
The “stay at home” order also ends, meaning they can travel for longer distances to meet up outside – as long as they don’t stay overnight.
Sir Mark Walport, former government chief scientific adviser and a member of SAGE, warned that social distancing “still does matter” outdoors.
He added: “At the end of the day, the virus gets from one person to another by proximity and proximity can happen outside as well, hence your discussion about hugging.”
Advising when we he thinks we should hug elderly relatives, he said: “When the evidence shows that the case numbers are really, really low indeed, that’s the point, and so some degree of caution makes sense.”
Government minister Nigel Huddleston urged people to hold back from hugging friends and relatives.
“I want to hug my mum so believe me, politicians are human beings too and we are desperately as keen to do this as everybody else,” he said.
“Please, uncomfortable as it is, please don’t do the hugging because what you’re doing is then risking the health of the very people that you love.
“So, just a matter of time, we’ll be looking at social distancing and other measures as time goes on.”
Organised outdoor sport was also allowed from yesterday with facilities including football pitches, basketball courts, golf courses and outdoor swimming pools reopening across England.
Mr Johnson revealed he was looking forward to returning to the tennis court while Keir Starmer was playing five-aside football with friends last night.
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The Labour leader said he was looking forward to being able to “shout and scream” on the football pitch once again.
In Wales the stay local order ended on Saturday and people were allowed to stay in self-catered holiday accommodation.
The stay at home order is to end in Scotland on Friday, while in Northern Ireland up to six people, or two households, will be able to meet outdoors from Thursday.