LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that there is a "good chance" that social distancing rules in England will be scrapped on June 21 if coronavirus infections and deaths stay low.
Johnson told reporters in the north England town of Hartlepool where he is campaigning before a special election on Thursday that the government's lockdown easing plans remains on course as a result of a sharp fall in new coronavirus infections and the rapid rollout of vaccines.
On Monday, the National Health Service delivered its 50 millionth vaccine, with around 52% of the British population having received at least one dose and around a quarter having received two jabs.
"You are seeing the results of that really starting to show up in the epidemiology," Johnson said.
Under its road map to ease restrictions which Johnson insists is dependent on "data not dates," the government is set to lift further restrictions on May 17, such as allowing people to go inside a pub and restaurant and to allow some foreign travel.
On June 21, all other legal limits on social contact potentially lifted, including the rule that requires people to be at least one meter away from anyone outside their household provided other protective measures are in place, such as mask-wearing or meeting outdoors. This is known as the "one-meter plus" rule.
Johnson said there is "a good chance" that the one-meter plus rule will be ditched from June 21.
"That is still dependent on the data, we can't say it categorically yet, we have got to look at the epidemiology as we progress, we have got to look at where we get to with the disease," he said. "But that's what it feels like to me right now."
Getting rid of the one-meter plus rule would change the financial dynamics for Britain's hospitality sector, which has been one of the most hard-hit during the pandemic. Because people can't sit right next to each, inside or outside, pubs and restaurants can't host as many people as they used to.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, welcomed Johnson's comments, saying they give the sector hope of return to normality.
"Given pubs are financially unviable under the current restrictions they face, being able to reopen without any restrictions at all from June 21 is going to be vital to their survival," she said. "Our recovery only begins when the restrictions are removed."
The latest daily figures from Sunday provided further evidence of the much-improved coronavirus backdrop in the U.K., with 1,671 new infections reported. That compares with the near 70,000 daily rate that the U.K. recorded in January, which led Johnson to announce England's third lockdown.
With the sharp fall in new cases, the number of people dying from COVID-19 has fallen dramatically too and on Sunday, the U.K. recorded only 14 virus-related deaths. Though the death toll has reduced, the U.K. has recorded Europe's highest virus-related death toll at more than 127,500.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock expressed certainty over a "great British summer" ahead following news of the 50 million vaccine landmark.
"It's because of the vaccination program that we're able to keep going down this road map, and I know we're going to have a great British summer," he said in a video posted on Twitter.
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