LONDON -- Boris Johnson wants a haircut and a beer.
Like millions of other Britons, the prime minister will be able to have a trim and a tipple on Saturday, when the country takes its biggest step yet out of lockdown with the reopening in England of restaurants, pubs and hairdressers, along with secular and sacred venues including cinemas and churches.
For isolation-weary Britons and cash-starved businesses, relief at easing the three-month lockdown is mixed with trepidation. Britain has the highest COVID-19 toll in Europe, with almost 44,000 confirmed deaths, and scientists say the coronavirus is still on the loose. The Office for National Statistics estimates there are 25,000 new infections a week in England. Even the usually ebullient Johnson said this week that the virus was “still circling like a shark in the water.”
“My message is for people to enjoy summer sensibly and make sure it all works,” Johnson told LBC radio on Friday. “Let’s not blow it."
When pubs and restaurants reopen Saturday, it will be anything but business as usual.
They will have to take contact details for each group, and people can only socialize with one other household at a time. There will be more cleaning, a ban on queuing at the bar for a drink, and reduced capacity, with patrons told to stay at least 1 meter (3 feet) apart.
“I think the vast majority of pubs and restaurants are welcoming and opening with enthusiasm,” said Jane Pendlebury, chief executive of the Hospitality Professionals Association. “Still, the restrictions are making it tough.
“And of course, the pub environment, the restaurant environment is going to have a very different vibe,” she said. “In those public areas we’re used to quite often being shoulder to shoulder, almost to having to rustle up our space at the bar. That’s going to be so very different now.”
Some pubs are staying closed over the weekend, or even longer. Even so, police have questioned the wisdom of reopening pubs on a Saturday Tim Clarke of the Metropolitan Police Federation warned the weekend could be “as busy as policing New Year’s Eve.”
Brian Booth, chairman of the police officers’ body the West Yorkshire Police Federation, said that before lockdown, local emergency rooms “on Friday and Saturday nights were at times akin to a circus full of drunken clowns. We do not need this once again.”
One city in England will not be joining in the reopening. Leicester, population 300,000, was sent back into lockdown this week amid a spike in coronavirus infections. Nonessential shops have been closed and pubs and restaurants will not be reopening on Saturday.
Scotland also has not agreed to the plan to end quarantine for arrivals from “low-risk” countries, which for now applies only to England.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said countries will be coded on a traffic-light system: green for low risk, amber for medium and red for high-risk. The U.S., which has the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the world, will be in the red category, and arrivals will have to quarantine.
Caught between public health fears and a staggering economy, the British government has seemed uncertain whether to encourage people to go out or stay home. On Wednesday the Treasury tweeted a message urging people to “grab a drink and raise a glass, pubs are reopening their doors from 4 July” — then deleted it after a shower of criticism.
Johnson has said he wants people to enjoy themselves, and plans to have a pint and get his shaggy blond locks trimmed this weekend.
He has also — belatedly, say critics — struck a more cautious note.
“Do not undo the sacrifices you have made with reckless behavior,” Johnson told the Evening Standard newspaper. “We do not want to see businesses have to close again.”
Johnson is due to hold a news conference Friday afternoon before what the media has dubbed “Super Saturday.”
Bharat Pankhania, an expert in communicable diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School, said the government was sending “mixed messages.”
“The virus is still in circulation,” he said. “People will get infected and ... we need to take the same precautions that we were taking earlier on.
“I do worry that the enormous cost of the lockdown, the pain and suffering, may be undone very, very quickly.” ———
Pan Pylas in London contributed to this story.