Al fresco meals, takeaway pints form core of British PM Johnson’s major speech on Covid-19

The British government will extend sidewalk licences to make it easier for pubs, restaurants and cafes to set up tables and serve more customers. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Al fresco dining will become the norm in Britain under plans to revolutionise town centres and tackle economic inequalities after the pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will promise in a major speech this week.

The government will extend sidewalk licences to make it easier for pubs, restaurants and cafes to set up tables and serve more customers, and takeaway pints of beer will continue for another 12 months.

In his speech, confirmed by his office after Bloomberg first reported it last Friday (July 9), Mr Johnson will vow to tackle the social divisions entrenched by the coronavirus crisis and 16 months of restrictions.

He will pledge to create a more balanced economy with good jobs in every part of Britain, "level up" between generations, invest in infrastructure and skills, and put local needs first, Downing Street said in an e-mailed statement on Saturday (July 10). The speech is expected at the end of the week.

Mr Johnson has long promised to "level up" prosperity across Britain - it is a pledge that contributed to his Conservative Party winning a big majority in the 2019 election, particularly in the traditional Labour heartlands of northern England.

He will turn the spotlight onto the economy just days before virtually all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England are expected to be lifted on July 19 - allowing nightclubs to reopen and events to resume without capacity limits. A final decision will be announced on Monday.

The British government is confident that plans to lift a range of Covid-19 restrictions will go ahead on July 19 in England but mask-wearing in indoor enclosed places will be expected, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said on Sunday.

Some scientists and critics of the government have expressed concern that it pressing ahead to lift restrictions even as coronavirus infections are rising. The government has argued that the high rate of vaccinations in Britain means the link between infections and serious illness or death has largely been broken.

"I am confident that we can proceed to step four," Mr Zahawi told Sky News.

"It's important that we remain cautious and careful and the guidelines that we'll set out tomorrow will demonstrate that, including guidelines that people are expected to wear masks in indoor enclosed spaces."

Easing of restrictions will proceed but mask-wearing in indoor enclosed places will be expected. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Johnson's government sets health policy for England, but not for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Asked about a Sunday Times report that the gap between administering the first and second Covid-19 jab is set to be halved to four weeks, Mr Zahawi said: "I'm slightly puzzled where that story has come from."

"The real-world clinical data suggests that actually the eight-week interval offers that additional fortification in terms of protection with the two doses much better than having that interval shortened any further."

Almost two-thirds of British adults now double-vaccinated. But cases are rising fast: last Friday the reproduction rate of the virus in England rose to levels last seen in October.

"While talent and potential is distributed evenly across this country, opportunity is not," a government spokesman said. "That's why as we emerge from the pandemic, it's vital that we do not make the mistakes of recovery from the financial crash and seize this moment to ensure a better quality of life for people in every part of the UK."

The economy is rebounding strongly this year after slumping more than 10 per cent in 2020. The nature of the recovery, however, illustrates the scale of Mr Johnson's challenge to tackle inequality. The spending boom driving it is built on the savings that mainly well-to-do households amassed during lockdowns. Britain's young and poor, meanwhile, bore the brunt of restrictions.

The Bank of England said the housing boom, fuelled by tax incentives, will likely widen the gap even more, adding to the wealth of rich households while making it harder for younger generations to get on the property ladder.

With government support programmes coming to an end, economists have warned that young people are now in danger of permanent damage to their prospects unless they are urgently helped back to work.

A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this month found that 19- to 24-year-olds were particularly vulnerable to the winding down of furlough wage subsidies, which have saved the vast majority of jobs affected during the pandemic.

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