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After Months Of Lockdown, The U.K. Is Slowly Reopening

NOEL KING, HOST:

After months under lockdown, the U.K. is starting to open up slowly. Shops, gyms, hairdressers and pubs with outdoor beer gardens will reopen next Monday in England. Here's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Monday the 12, I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips.

KING: Now, there is also a plan to pilot vaccine passports that would allow only certain people into bigger venues. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is covering this one. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: The U.K. has had the highest death toll in all of Europe. Why is Boris Johnson's government convinced that now is the time to open up?

LANGFITT: I think it's because the vaccine program here actually has been a bigger success than people, I think, imagined. More than 31 million Britons have already gotten their first vaccine dose. I got mine last month, and I'm getting the second one in June. It's really spreading out very quickly across the country. Right now, deaths are down to about 47 a day compared to maybe 1,300 or more earlier in the year. And I think what they want to do is they want to begin to revive the economy. One question, though, which is worrisome to people is there is scientific modelling that shows there could be a third wave which would mean more deaths, more pressure on the National Health Service here. Part of that is the question of how much vaccine actually halts transmission, which is uncertain right now.

KING: I am glad, at the very least, that you have gotten your first dose. I want to ask you about these vaccine passports, because this is really, really controversial. What is Boris Johnson saying about them?

LANGFITT: Well, he was talking about it yesterday in a newscast - rather, a news conference. And he doesn't like the phrase, even though that's the phrase everybody else here uses. He likes to call them COVID-19 certificates...

KING: OK (laughter).

LANGFITT: ...Because of the connotation of passports and basically discriminating against people if they don't have the vaccine or something close to that. Now, what he's saying yesterday is, well, it doesn't just have to be proof of vaccination. It could be a negative COVID test or a positive antibody test in the last six months. And he was very clear that, at least for now, when places reopen - shops, outdoor beer gardens - on Monday, they're not going to be requiring anything like this. But if you look at the documents coming out of the government, they do say that they think this is likely to be a feature - what they call a feature - of British life until the pandemic recedes, and next month, the government is going to test these things out at larger venues. This is what Johnson said yesterday.

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JOHNSON: Big events like, you know, getting 20,000 people into Wembley on May the 15, getting people back into a theatre...

LANGFITT: And Noel, what he's talking about at Wembley Stadium is the FA Cup final. That's the annual English soccer - part of the annual English soccer tournament.

KING: OK, so potentially no vaccine, no passport, no entry to the soccer game. Let me ask you, because this is so controversial, I would imagine that British lawmakers also have something to say about vaccine passports.

LANGFITT: Yeah, there's a lot of opposition in Parliament, more than 70 members of Parliament, including those in Johnson's party, as well as the opposition Labour, are against it. Shami Chakrabarti - she's with the Labour Party. She's in the House of Lords - she's talking about passports turning the country into checkpoint Britain. This is what she said to ITV - British broadcaster - last week.

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SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: A segregated society, which is what is being mooted by internal passports, is a recipe for discrimination, for bullying. Every bouncer or employer or shopkeeper could decide who comes in and who doesn't.

KING: All right, so she's certainly giving us a sense of what she believes to be are the stakes there.

NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.