UK PM cautious on lockdown easing as new hotel regime starts

AFP , Monday 15 Feb 2021

The government is targeting another 17 million people by the end of April, including everyone aged 50 and above, plus starting on second doses for the first wave

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C), Britain's Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty (L) and Chief Executive of the National Health Service (NHS) Simon Stevens attend a virtual press conference inside 10 Downing Street in central London on February 15, 2021, to give an update on the coronavirus covid-19 pandemic AFP

Britain is aiming for a "cautious but irreversible" plan to exit coronavirus lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday, as the first batch of travellers entered an enforced and expensive new hotel quarantine regime.

Lockdown-sceptic MPs are pressing for an accelerated exit after the country passed a vaccine milestone at the weekend, with 15 million people having received their first jabs.

"This is an unprecedented national achievement but it's no moment to relax," Johnson told a news conference.

The government is targeting another 17 million people by the end of April, including everyone aged 50 and above, plus starting on second doses for the first wave.

The government intends next Monday to lay out a roadmap for easing its third stay-at-home order in England, which has shut down schools, non-essential businesses and hospitality venues since early January.

Schools could reopen on March 8, officials hope, and Johnson said he would set down "as much as we possibly can about the route to normality even though some things are very uncertain".

"Because we want this lockdown to be the last, and we want progress to be cautious but also irreversible."

With more than 117,000 Covid deaths, Britain is one of the world's worst-hit countries. But the daily figure for new cases on Monday dipped under 10,000 for the first time since October 4.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there was "some way to go" before easing restrictions, adding that the government was awaiting key data on the effect of vaccines on transmission.

Over the weekend, however, more than 60 MPs from the ruling Conservatives signed a letter calling for Johnson to commit to lifting all legal controls by the end of April.

Once enough people are inoculated, "it's time for us to take a bold stride into life and start to recover our society and our humanity", lawmaker Steve Baker told Talkradio on Monday.

- 'Crazy' cost -
While it eyes a route out of lockdown, the government is also tightening the borders to guard against emerging variants of the coronavirus.

The new hotels policy requires all UK citizens and permanent residents entering England from 33 "red list" countries to self-isolate at their own expense in an approved hotel for 10 days.

Other visitors from the 33 countries -- including all South American nations, South Africa and Portugal -- are currently barred from visiting the UK.

One woman flew in from Zambia and was one of a handful of individuals bussed from London's Heathrow airport to a nearby hotel.

"I'm not happy, but you have to do it," she said.

Roger Goncalves, who flew back from Sao Paulo in Brazil, told the BBC the cost was "crazy".

The quarantine costs £1,750 ($2,420, 2,000 euros) per traveller, covering transport, food, accommodation, security and repeat Covid testing.

"I did my test for coronavirus. The test was negative. Why do I need to stay in my room for 10 days?" asked the delivery driver, who now lives in Britain.

Under the new rules, arrivals found to have given false information about being in one of the listed countries prior to travel could receive up to 10 years in prison -- which has drawn criticism for being excessive.

The government says it has signed contracts with 16 hotels, securing nearly 5,000 rooms near English airports, with a further 58,000 rooms on standby, as it belatedly follows the example of others such as Australia and New Zealand.

Hancock said the government had resolved initial logistical problems with the new policy at Heathrow, Britain's busiest airport.

"We've been working with the airport and with the Border Force to make sure everybody knows the process," he told Times Radio. "And it does appear to be going smoothly this morning.

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