Joy for UK pubs and hugs tempered by rise in virus variant

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A member of staff serves a drink, as pubs, cafes and restaurants in England reopen indoors under the latest easing of the coronavirus lockdown, in Manchester, England, Monday, May 17, 2021. Pubs and restaurants across much of the U.K. are opening for indoor service for the first time since early January even as the prime minister urged people to be cautious amid the spread of a more contagious COVID-19 variant. (AP Photo Jon Super)

LONDON – Drinks were raised in toasts and reunited friends hugged each other as thousands of U.K. pubs and restaurants opened Monday for indoor service for the first time since early January. Yet the prime minister sounded a cautious tone, warning about a more contagious COVID-19 variant that threatens reopening plans.

Theaters, leisure venues and museums were also reopening as part of the latest step in easing nationwide restrictions, raising hopes that Britain's economy may soon start to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

Andy Frantzeskos, a chef at Nopi, an upmarket Mediterranean restaurant in London's Soho district, said he felt “a bit of anxiousness ... but more excitement than anything.”

“It’s been a long time coming since lockdown, so we’re all happy to be back and want to cook some good food,” he said.

The government also relaxed guidance on close personal contact — meaning people can hug friends and family they don't live with — and lifted a ban on foreign holidays, although only 12 countries and territories are on the list of “safe” destinations that don't require 10 days of quarantine upon return. Thousands of Britons got up early to check in for the first flights to Portugal, which is on the safe list.

But the rapid spread of a variant first discovered in India is tempering the optimism amid memories of how the U.K. variant swept the country in December, triggering England’s third national lockdown. Public health officials are urging people to continue to observe social distancing, even though the situation is different now because almost 70% of British adults have received at least one vaccine dose.

“Please, be cautious about the risks to your loved ones,’’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a Twitter video. “Remember that close contact such as hugging is a direct way of transmitting this disease."

Monday's reopening allows people in England to go out for a drink or a meal without shivering in rainy outdoor beer gardens. Rules were also being eased in Scotland and Wales, with Northern Ireland to follow next week.