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‘Free at last!’ Britain jubilant as lockdown restrictions to be lifted next week

Woman taking photo of her cocktail
A woman takes a photo of her drink in London’s Soho district after limited gatherings outdoors were allowed in April.
(Alberto Pezzali / Associated Press)

When London’s Science Museum reopens next week, it will have some new artifacts: empty vaccine vials, testing kits and other items collected during the pandemic, to be featured in a new COVID-19 display.

Britain isn’t quite ready to consign the coronavirus to a museum — the outbreak is far from over here. But there is a definite feeling that the U.K. has turned a corner, and the mood in the country is jubilant. “The end is in sight,” one newspaper front page claimed recently. “Free at last!” read another.

Thanks to an efficient COVID-19 vaccine rollout program, Britain is finally saying goodbye to months of tough lockdown restrictions.

Starting Monday, all restaurants and bars in England can reopen with some precautions in place, as can hotels, theaters and museums. And Britons will be able to hug friends and family again, with the easing of social-distancing rules that have been in place since the pandemic began.

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It’s the biggest step yet in reopening the country following an easing of the crisis that has claimed nearly 128,000 lives, Europe’s highest reported COVID-19 death toll.

Deaths in Britain have come down to single digits in recent days. It’s a far cry from January, when deaths topped 1,800 in a single day amid a brutal second wave driven by a more infectious coronavirus variant first found in Kent, in southeastern England.

People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear masks in most places, the CDC suggested. But in California, it may be a week or more before changes would be considered locally.

New cases have plummeted to an average of about 2,000 a day, compared with nearly 70,000 a day during the winter.

There are some worries on the horizon. British authorities have voiced anxiety about a rise in cases of a virus variant first identified in India, after a closely monitored study of infections in England found it becoming more prevalent.

Ministers are poised to order further action, including door-to-door testing, in the worst-affected areas. One response being considered is bringing forward the date for a second dose of vaccine for eligible groups to increase protection. To get more people inoculated as quickly as possible, Britain has ordered second doses to be administered 12 weeks after the first, unlike the three-week gap in the U.S.

British health officials have raced to get ahead of the coronavirus by vaccinating hundreds of thousands of people a day at hospitals, soccer fields, churches and a racecourse. As of this week, almost 38 million people — about 68% of the adult population — have received their first dose. Almost 19 million have had both doses.

A new study shows that Britain’s COVID-19 vaccination program is beginning to break the link between infection and serious illness or death.

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It’s an impressive feat, and many credit Britain’s universal public health system for much of the success.

Experts say the National Health Service, one of the country’s most revered institutions, is able to target the whole population and easily identify those most at risk because almost everyone is registered with a local general practitioner.

That infrastructure, combined with the government’s early start in securing vaccine doses, was key. British authorities began ordering millions of doses from multiple manufacturers late last spring, striking deals months ahead of the European Union and securing more than enough vaccine to immunize the entire population.

“I don’t think it’s surprising that the two countries in the world with probably the strongest primary care systems, which are us and Israel, are doing the best with vaccine rollout,” said Beccy Baird, a policy researcher at the King’s Fund, a charity for improving healthcare.

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Up to 1.3 million people may have left in the past 12 months, according to research that questions official data.

“We have the medical records. We can understand where our patients are. We’re not trying to negotiate with loads of different insurance companies. … It’s the same standard right through the country,” she added. “Whereas in the States, it’s going to be harder to really think about how do you reach underserved communities, how do you get out there and provide the same access to everybody to this vaccine?”

David Salisbury, a former director of the government’s immunization program and a fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, added that Britain also has the edge because of its track record in successfully rolling out other vaccines, such as the seasonal flu shot.

Many around the world were skeptical about Britain’s decision to delay the second dose by up to 12 weeks, but that strategy also paid huge dividends. The two shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were intended to be given three and four weeks apart.

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Anthony Harnden, an Oxford academic and a top government vaccination advisor, said that “there were lots of questions asked” and “we were up against many countries” who disagreed with spacing out the two doses, but officials stuck to the plan.

“You have to remember, looking back at that time, there were a thousand or more people dying every day in the U.K. So there was a huge imperative to get our vulnerable people vaccinated,” he said. “It was an innovative strategy, a bold strategy, but it was based on our experience of previous vaccines.”

The vaccine program’s success has been a much-needed boost for Britain. But some health experts are worried that too many people may throw caution to the wind too soon.

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Most residents under 35, who run a much lower risk of serious illness but can still spread the coronavirus, have not been vaccinated yet under Britain’s age-based rollout. Official figures also show significant gaps in vaccine uptake among minorities and poor people.

Authorities are also concerned about the variants of the virus that are turning up. That risk is especially worrying as the U.K. slowly reopens to foreign tourists this summer.

The European Union’s executive branch proposes easing restrictions on visiting the 27-nation bloc as its COVID-19 vaccination campaign picks up pace.

“We’ve seen very discouraging evidence from Chile and from the Seychelles, both of which have high proportions of people who have been vaccinated and where many restrictions were lifted, and they’ve had upsurges,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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Harnden is more optimistic. If Britain can roll out a booster vaccine program later this year and if people remain cautious, he said, things could get close to normal by the summer of 2022.

“We’re not completely out of this yet,” he said, “but we’re in a much, much better place than in the last few months.”


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