Goodbye, lockdown: U.K. opens to hugs and sleepovers from May 17

After more than a year since crippling restrictions began, the U.K.’s social calendar is opening up in earnest come Monday.

May 17 is the last stop before full freedom—a world with sweaty clubs, holidays, and no social distancingarrives in the U.K. on June 21. That’s if carefully laid plans hold and the COVID-19 virus continues to be held back.

The reopening comes even as concerns mount over the variant now ravaging India. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday he was “anxious” about the variant, but added that the easing of restrictions was expected to go ahead.

Despite erratic weather, there is optimism in the air. Starting Monday, groups of 30 people can meet outside and groups of six can hang out indoors. Friends and family can stay overnight and almost all businesses will be open. Hugging will also be allowed, although the government is telling people to be selective, keep it brief, and minimize face-to-face contact.

That holds promise for new connections too: Over the course of the pandemic, daters have had to be more creative with their meetups, with the word “picnic” surging on U.K. Tinder bios, a Tinder spokesperson told Fortune.

The path here has not been easy. Much of the U.K. has been under some sort of lockdown since March 2020, and over 127,000 people have died from COVID-19. Relative to the size of the population, that toll is among the highest in the world. But on May 10, for the first time since July last year, no COVID-19 deaths were reported across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Daily death numbers have been falling steadily since its peak in January. An enviable vaccination rate—among the best across major economies—has helped.

Pubs, clubs, and pent-up demand

Trial runs had already begun. Proving the resilience of England’s party spirit, Liverpool ran a trial club night on May 1, attracting some 3,000 partygoers. In order to be let in, U.K. clubbers had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test and take a test five days after attending. The success of the Liverpool event is reviving hopes that the U.K.’s party industry will return resoundingly after pandemic-led cuts.

Pubs, so central to everyday British life, will also be counting on customers returning with pent-up thirst. But a lot of drinks have to be downed to ensure that the average pub can stay open. According to U.K. insolvency adviser Company Debt, each adult would have to drink 124 pints of beer to save the British pub industry from the £25.66 billion ($36.1 million) it lost because of closures.

Optimistically, after a year spent in and around their homes, people are starting to become more confident with their spending. A Bank of America survey, released this week, found record levels of optimism among consumers.

The survey found that consumers are intending to spend 20% of the savings they built up during the pandemic, noting “those who saved more plan to spend more.”

In a research note earlier this week, UBS economist Anna Titareva wrote that pent-up demand and savings are among the factors that will drive economic growth in the second half of the year.

As part of the new rules, some foreign travel has been approved, but many popular destination spots are still no-go. Popular British holiday destinations including France, Spain, and Greece are still barred, but others like Portugal, Iceland, Singapore, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands—although South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, out in the Atlantic, are accessible only by boat, at a cost of around $10,000.

The U.S., meanwhile, is in the “amber zone,” meaning any Americans keen to visit London will have to quarantine for 10 days once they arrive. Travelers will also be required to take three COVID-19 tests; one before arrival, another two days after arriving, and another eight days after arriving. British nationals are still not allowed to enter the U.S.

But even if life in the U.K. is not quite back to normal, Monday marks a step up from the last relaxing of rules, which started on April 12. Previously, people were allowed to only meet with up to six others outdoors, in pub gardens, or outdoor restaurants.

And technically, they were not permitted to hug.

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