England to take big step toward post-coronavirus normality

'This doesn't mean we can suddenly throw caution to the winds,' says Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

England to take big step toward post-coronavirus normality

LONDON — Hug your close friends and family if you want to, Boris Johnson said Monday, as he prepared England for its biggest step toward post-COVID normality yet.

U.K. government guidelines will be adjusted next week to allow people to make their “own choices” when it comes to social distancing with close friends and family outside their households as U.K. infection and death rates continue to fall.

But the new freedoms will come with a health warning.

“This doesn’t mean we can suddenly throw caution to the winds,” Johnson said. “In fact, more than a year into this pandemic, we all know that close contact, such as hugging, is a direct way of transmitting this disease. So I urge you to think about the vulnerability of your loved ones, whether they’ve had a vaccine, one or two doses, and whether there has been time for that vaccine to take effect,” Johnson said.

And people will still have to stay away from strangers and colleagues, with social-distancing rules still set to apply in care homes, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries, shops, bars, restaurants and other businesses.

The review into social distancing comes as Johnson gave the green light for England to move to the next stage of his roadmap out of lockdown.

More than two-thirds of all adults across the U.K. have now had at least the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and earlier Monday, the four U.K. chief medical officers confirmed the country’s epidemic alert level would be reduced from four to three, meaning that while the virus is in general circulation, transmission is no longer high or rising exponentially.

The easing of restrictions, which will happen on May 17, will mean people in England will be able to meet outdoors in groups of up to 30 people, and meet indoors in groups of up to six or as two households. People will also be able to eat and drink indoors in pubs and restaurants, and cinemas, museums and children’s play areas will reopen. 

Theaters, concert halls, conference centers and sports stadia will also be able to reopen, although with some capacity limits. Hotels and B&Bs can reopen and groups of up to six people, or two households, will be allowed to stay overnight. Weddings, receptions and other “life events” will be able to take place with up to 30 people. There will be no cap on the numbers attending funerals, provided mourners can be safely accommodated.

People living in care homes, who have experienced some of the most stringent restrictions during the pandemic, will be able to have up to five named visitors, and greater freedom to make visits that are deemed “low-risk.”

Face masks will no longer be recommended in schools, and in-person teaching at universities will return.

But, speaking alongside Johnson at the same press conference, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned “quite a close eye” needed to be kept on the so-called Indian variant, which has been elevated to a variant of concern by U.K. authorities because of worries about its speed of transmission and the effectiveness of vaccinations against it.

Whitty said scientists currently believe the Indian variant could be more transmissible than the already very-transmissible Kent variant of COVID-19. “At this point in time, our view is it is less likely to be able to escape vaccination than some of other variants, particularly the South African one,” he said, although he cautioned that advisers had not yet seen clear data.

Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance also warned that England may still face restrictions in “certain circumstances” after June 21.  “It may be as winter comes, and if rates went up again, things like face coverings on transport might be necessary,” he said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email for a complimentary trial. 


Source : Politico EU More   

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Greek, Spanish PMs see joint EU debt as precedent for more fiscal integration

Mitsotakis and Sánchez say pandemic response is creating new model of EU integration.

Greek, Spanish PMs see joint EU debt as precedent for more fiscal integration

ATHENS — The joint debt EU leaders agreed to undertake to finance the pandemic recovery should become a precedent for greater European fiscal integration, the prime ministers of Greece and Spain proclaimed Monday, saying it was up to their governments to show the money is used effectively and to erase any doubts among Northern countries.

Appearing on stage together at the Delphi Forum in Athens, for a chat moderated by POLITICO’s Florian Eder, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez demonstrated a united front in applauding the joint debt program (despite coming from rival political families), as well as the EU’s recent cooperation to create a “travel certificate” for tourists, and its joint vaccine-purchasing program.

Mitsotakis said that Southern EU countries, which suffered from the austerity policies following the 2008 financial crisis, ultimately persuaded frugal countries in the North that the approach had been a mistake and that the joint debt program would benefit everyone — by speeding the recovery of the EU’s single market, and helping with the difficult transition in adopting green policies and new digital technologies.

“If this money is wisely spent in accelerating the twin transitions, then I think it’s not going to be a one-off event,” Mitsotakis said, effectively putting a challenge to other leaders who have said the rescue program should not set any precedent. “It really depends upon us to make sure that the approach is the right one.”

“The aim should be this not to be a one-off fund, a one-off financing event,” he said, adding, “I think we have reached a point where we realize that in the post-pandemic period we need a different macroeconomic view that goes beyond the traditional very strict rules of fiscal convergence that we all had to deal with.”

Sánchez quickly grabbed the baton and ran with it. “History will say that the year 2020 was a great year for those who believe in the integration of the European Union — if you see what we have achieved,” he said, citing the SURE program to prevent layoffs of furloughed workers, the joint vaccine procurement program, the travel certificate (which is not completed) and the €750 billion Rescue and Resilience Facility to be financed by joint debt.

“The RRF is a huge achievement,” Sánchez said. “A political achievement, like the single market or the entrance of our countries in the European Union or the single currency. Perhaps nowadays we are very close to that agreement but in historic terms I think people will see this agreement as one of the major steps in favor of the European integration.”

In the joint interview, the prime ministers urged Brussels to reach a quick agreement on the travel certificate, which they described as essential for their tourism-dependent economies. But they also went further in calling for the EU to be given greater authority to take decisions on health policies, and potentially on travel restrictions, over which national capitals so far have been loath to relinquish control.

“It is very important to have a green certificate as we want to restore freedom of movement as quickly as possible within the European Union; it is also important to have it as quickly as possible because we want to make sure that people will be able to travel during the summer without unnecessary constraints,” Mitsotakis said, adding, “It will make our lives easier.”

Sánchez seized the moment to express support for a Commission proposal to create a new European health agency, and then, looking to Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides in the audience, he proposed Spain as its home: “By the way, Barcelona is a great capital, commissioner, to host this new agency.”

Mitsotakis stressed that the pandemic was far from over, and that officials needed to remain on guard against new variants that could require reimposing travel bans, but he suggested Brussels should be empowered to take swift, firm decisions. “This is something we discussed in Porto [at an EU leaders’ summit] and I think it is very important as there is always the risk of new variants of concern to emerge,” he said. “If a decision has to be taken to restrict travel from a specific country, it needs to be taken quickly and it needs to be taken at the European level and applied to all member states.”

Asked about the approaching retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Sánchez, who is a social democrat, and Mitostakis, who is a center-right conservative, each offered praise for the woman widely viewed as the EU’s preeminent leader, including for her role in agreeing to the joint debt program.

“The tectonic plates of European politics have to a certain extent been shifted by Angela Merkel, when she moved away from the total resistance to what ended up happening last July and to her credit she saw the need for Germany to play a leadership role,” Mitsotakis said. At the same time, he said that transitions were a hallmark of democracy: “Institutions should be able to transcend individuals.”

The visit by Sánchez for the high-profile forum in Greece may help Mitsotakis domestically as he works to push forward a controversial legislative package of labor initiatives and to blunt criticism of the left by appearing in sync with the leader of the EU’s biggest country currently run by a center-left government. In any case, the two leaders seemed united in their enthusiasm for Brussels, which they said had taken unfair criticism throughout the pandemic.

“I’m a little tired with the Europe-bashing,” Mitsotakis said.

Source : Politico EU More   

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