We are open: England gears up for the beginning of the end of lockdown

On Brighton seafront, it is all hands to the pump with just days to go before the grand reopening. The sun, beating down from a cloudless sky, reflects off the sea as Steve Simpson, owner of Brighton Music Hall, directs operations. All along the front, it feels like a brand new open-air economy is being built in a sudden release of pent-up energy.

A van piled with dozens of new chairs arrives and Simpson’s team helps unload them. “We are re-doing this whole area so we can accommodate hundreds of people in the open air,” he says. “We have a new outside stage, new giant canopies, new heaters, new beach huts, new plants.

“We are booked out for Monday and much of next week. We will be able to serve food and drink out here. There will be a live singer at 11am on Monday and a live band from 5pm. It is a great feeling. It is fantastic. We have been working on this since January.”

His operations manager, Joe Belson, is similarly upbeat, but after the trials and tribulations of the past year he is tempering his optimism with some caution: “How can anyone be totally confident? As long as we can continue and don’t have to shut again, we have a good chance. I just feel sorry for those whose [catering and entertainment] businesses are inside only.”

Things are coming back to life all over the city as furloughed workers re-acquaint themselves with their workplaces. Owners of shops, restaurants and cafes are adapting their limited outside spaces as best they can, racing against time to be ready, and determined to take their chance.

At the Copper Clam restaurant, also on the seafront, a workman is up a ladder renovating the windows so everything will look spick and span from the outside. Owner Jovica Kolakovic is expecting a frantic few weeks. “People have been so despondent,” he says. “They can’t travel. They have been stuck inside. They so want to get out.”

Mark Wadsworth is opening a restaurant called Due South a few doors away, and there are workmen everywhere. “There is a massive sense of teamwork all along the front. People just want to start earning money again,” he says.

Signs of spring in New Bond Street, London, as shops prepare to reopen. Photograph: Rex

Monday 12 April is the day when some semblance of normality will return to a country longing for lost freedoms but still nervous about what will come next.

Food and drink will be served outside again. Non-essential retailers can reopen, as can gyms, hairdressers, spas, zoos, theme parks, libraries and community centres. Non-essential journeys between England and Wales can resume, as can weddings – with up to 15 people – and funeral wakes. UK self-catering holidays can resume but only with people in your household or support bubble.

The next step comes on 17 May at the earliest, when indoor hospitality will be able to reopen. According to Boris Johnson, 12 April will be the first big stop on a “one-way road to freedom”.

But if experience of the pandemic so far has taught people anything, it is to be suspicious of predictions from politicians, and of sudden optimistic turns in the tides of opinion. When asked whether she was confident that this would be the last lockdown, a young woman wheeling a pram along the promenade rocked her head skywards. “Who knows with this government? One day it’s yes. One day i’s no. We can’t know where we are any more. That is how it seems to me.”

Staff prepare an outdoor cafe area at Yorkshire Wildlife Park.
Staff prepare an outdoor cafe area at Yorkshire Wildlife Park. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Simpson at the Music Hall says “all we need is consistency” from government “so we can move forward”. But he seems doubtful that that is what we will get.

Johnson has been pushed by MPs in his own party to move faster and further to unlock than many scientists (including several who advise his government) believe is sensible. The successful rollout of vaccines in recent weeks has added to political and economic pressures to lift restrictions, and the prospect of a spring opening has led to a “vaccine bounce” for the prime minister and his party in the opinion polls.

In our Opinium survey today, more people had a positive than a negative view of the government’s overall management of the pandemic for the first time since last May. The Tories now have a nine-point poll lead over Labour, having fallen behind them briefly late last year.

Dig deeper though, and the sense that all is well seems very fragile. Pollsters say the Johnson/Tory revival is primarily vaccine driven and not necessarily durable – partly because widespread doubts about the vaccine may grow further.

Last week, the government’s chief scientific officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, warned that there could be more unwelcome developments. “What may happen as more people become immune to the virus through vaccination,” he said “is that the virus will try and get around that and escape the vaccine. That’s a normal process that viruses do.”

The other big danger is that, just as the economy is opening up, knowledge about the vaccine’s efficacy and its possible side-effects will grow – and fears can spread fast. Last week’s announcement that people under 30 would be offered alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine because of probable links between its use and extremely rare, fatal blood clots in younger people was not good news for anyone.

An outdoor bar stocks up with beer in time for reopening.
An outdoor bar stocks up with beer in time for reopening. Photograph: Akira Suemori/Rex

The worry now in Whitehall and the science community is that large numbers of young people – those who are less likely to suffer seriously if they catch Covid-19 – will be put off taking the vaccine, and that will increase the danger of them becoming future spreaders and hastening a widely expected third wave.

“Younger people have always been a bit more suspicious about vaccines, particularly those who use social media, where they will pick up all the misleading information that it generates,” says virologist Lawrence Young of Warwick Medical School.

“On top of that, we have the ramifications concerning the AstraZeneca vaccine, which will further undermine their confidence. That is a real concern. The government needs to generate a really strong communication campaign around the vaccine to reassure people that everything is safe.”

This point is echoed by Stephen Griffin, associate professor at Leeds University medical school. “What we absolutely must not do is to stop using that vaccine,” he said, “because it’s available, effective at preventing severe disease and also looks as if it can limit virus transmission.”

Griffin also urged that plans be made to vaccinate children and adolescents against Covid-19. “This virus is going to be circulating the planet for a long time, so we need to introduce school-based vaccination programmes so that everyone gets a coronavirus jab along with their meningitis one. We need to plan for the long term.”

If a straw poll of young people in Brighton on Friday is anything to go by, the scientists’ worries are well founded. The level of support for taking the vaccine among under-40s is, at best, mixed.

Lucy Morris and Taylor Measor on Brighton seafront
Lucy Morris and Taylor Measor, who says they don’t plan to be vaccinated. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Out with friends on the seafront, 26-year-old Mohamed Elejmy, a pharmacy student who is currently working in a vaccine centre, says that while he is convinced beyond doubt that young people should be inoculated, he fears the numbers who resist may now grow. “Part of it is to do with conspiracy theories,” he says. “But I think there will be more people now saying: ‘We are fit and healthy, so why should we have to take it?’.”

As if to prove his point, Lucy Morris, 34, an office manager, and her friend Taylor Measor, who is a snake breeder, are firmly set against. “It has not been tested enough, has it? I have never had a flu vaccine and I am definitely not going to take one for Covid now,” says Morris. Measor agrees: “I don’t want to be a guinea pig. Maybe I will take it in five years’ time, when we know more about it.”

Teachers Tristan Swoffer, 30, and Harriet Ward, 28, take the opposite view and are both strongly in favour. Ward says she had Covid-19 a few months ago and still has symptoms of long Covid. “Women take the contraceptive pill and that results in higher numbers of blood clots than the vaccine,” she adds.

Harriet Ward and Tristan Swoffer, on the seafront
Harriet Ward and Tristan Swoffer, both teachers, are in favour of the vaccine. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

When Opinium asked UK adults last week about the vaccine, around 35% said they were worried about side-effects, up from 32% two weeks ago. Among 18-34 year olds, 44% had concerns, up from 42% a fortnight before. Overall though, most people said they would take it. Among those who haven’t been offered a vaccine, 57% said they definitely will take one when offered (59% of 18-34-year-olds) and 18% probably will (17% of 18-34-year-olds).

Scientists say three groups of people will determine the size of the third wave of Covid-19 cases they expect to hit Britain later this year, after lockdown restrictions are lifted. These groups are: under-18s who are not eligible for vaccines at present; those who fall ill with Covid despite having had a jab; and those who refuse to be vaccinated.

The size of the first two groups can be estimated with some confidence. The last set is more problematic, however. Certainly, the larger it is, the worse will be the next wave of infections, with some estimates suggesting that Covid could cause between 10,000 and 20,000 deaths in the UK later this year.

In all, about 22 million people – around a third of the UK population – could still be susceptible to Covid-19 this summer. Apart from children and adolescents, there are those who have already had their first jab but are still only 75% to 80% less likely to fall ill than those who are unvaccinated. A certain number will still come down with coronavirus, in other words.

Freelance drummer Alex Morino on the seafront
Freelance drummer Alex Morino, who thinks he may wait a while before being vaccinated. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

As well as vaccine hesitancy, a further worry concerns the possible appearance of new virus mutations. At present, the most worrying variants have been linked to Covid outbreaks in South Africa and Brazil, but they have not yet spread widely across Britain. Scientists warn that any relaxation of foreign travel rules would increase the danger of new strains appearing in the UK.

Alex Marino, 33, a freelance drummer enjoying the sun while reading poetry on Brighton seafront, seemed to sum up the mood of qualified optimism, as Monday’s reopening approached. He was looking forward to getting back into work and had plenty of bookings for the summer.

“And I am pro vax,” he said, before adding that he never normally took medicines and was a little unsure about taking the Covid-19 vaccination after what he had heard over recent days. “I think it is sensible to wait, until we are 100% sure – if we ever can be.”

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