LONDON - Britain this week eased its lockdown rules, with some students returning to school and many families allowed to meet for the first time since March, when the measures were brought in to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Britain was one of the slowest countries to lock down and is now one of the worst-hit, with more than 50,000 COVID-19 deaths. Some scientists are warning that the relaxing of the rules could trigger a second wave of infections. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
As the country basked in unusually hot weather in recent days, many people were embracing the easing of the lockdown. Beaches and parks were busy with groups of six people from different households now allowed to meet outside.
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“We're getting this virus under control,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday, the day the lockdown measures were eased. “And this is why we can make the cautious, small, positive steps that we've been able to make today. And if we look at the number of admissions with COVID-19 to hospital, at 479, that's down from a peak of 3,121 on the second of April.”
Not all scientists agree with Hancock. Several members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, have publicly warned that it’s too early to end the lockdown. They include Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says the “reproduction rate” — the number of new people each infected person will pass the virus on to — is still too high. Any figure above one indicates that the pandemic is growing.
“I think the reproduction number is only just below one,” Edmunds said. “And so there's not a lot of room for maneuver. And so small changes can put that reproduction number up above one. I think the other more important thing is that we still have a lot of cases here in this country. So, the number of infections that we have is about 8,000 new infections every day in England alone.”
European neighbors like France, Spain and Italy were hard hit early on but now have far fewer cases. Spain this week recorded its first 24-hour period with no COVID-19 deaths since March, with just 71 new infections.
The British government says the route out of the crisis is its new “track and trace” system, which involves large-scale testing, quickly diagnosing cases and then tracing and quarantining those exposed to infection. Tens of thousands of people have been recruited to operate the system. Edmunds remains unconvinced. “We can't be sure that that's working effectively yet. And yet we're going ahead and making these changes anyway. And so, I think that that is rather dangerous,” he said.
Visiting a newly reopened London market this week, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak dismissed those fears. “We do it in a safe and responsible way,” Sunak told reporters. “And that's why today we've started with covered markets and car showrooms. And in a couple of weeks we'll get the shops open and then hopefully at the beginning of July we'll get many more restaurants and pubs open as well.”
Many business owners are in a dilemma – desperate for cash and customers, but wary of what may lie ahead. “I'm fairly convinced there'll be a second wave with the way that it's all been dealt with,” said Ed Warren, the owner of Cliffs Café in the seaside town of Margate in southern Britain. “But some businesses will have to reopen or they might go bankrupt.”
Bit by bit, Britain is trying to return to normality. A second wave of infections remains the biggest fear — but the government maintains it is in control.