By Michael Jarvis
England on Monday started taking its first tentative steps out of its third COVID-19 lockdown.
Groups of up to six people or two households can now meet outdoors as the country has seen a steep drop in the number of cases and deaths while the rate of vaccinations continues to increase.
However, the government is still urging the population to exercise caution as Europe enters its third wave and new variants continue to emerge.
To date across the UK, over 30 million people have been vaccinated with more than 3.5 million adults have had both doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Oxford-Zeneca jab.
A third vaccine, Moderna, is expected to be approved shortly.
While the UK vaccination rate is the highest amongst the leading global economies, the country had also suffered one of the highest death rates - and the highest in Europe - with over 126,000 deaths.
The cautious approach to this latest relaxation of restrictions in England follows criticism of the government’s handling of the previous reopening scheme which encouraged people to ‘eat out to help out’ resulting in a spike in cases.
“We must remain cautious, with cases rising across Europe and new variants threatening our vaccine rollout. Despite today’s easements, everyone must continue to stick to the rules,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
This new phased reopening comes after schools were allowed to return on March 8th.
The next step will see shops, gyms and outdoor hospitality reopening from April 12th.
From May 17th indoor meetings will be allowed for up to six people or two households and overnight stays, and from June 21st all remaining restrictions on social contact will be removed.
Scotland and Wales are following separate 'unlocking' schedules.
There are still restrictions on leaving the United Kingdom without a valid, approved reason with a fine of £5,000 for those found in breach.
Looking at the rising rate of cases in Europe, Mr Johnson said previous experience had shown that it could take up to three weeks for that outbreak to turn up in the UK.
The COVID virus currently sweeping through the continent is said to be mainly the UK variant.
The British Prime Miniter said, "The question is - is it going to be, this time, as bad it has been in the past? Or have we sufficiently mitigated, muffled, blunted impact by the vaccine rollout? That's a question we still don't really know the answer to."
There have been a series of demonstrations in England calling for the lockdown to be lifted.