Grandparents who live alone have been reunited with their families as they began forming “support bubbles” with one other household.
The latest easing of the social distancing rules in England has been keenly anticipated, with many people being able to end weeks of isolation under lockdown.
Couples who do not live together and had been required to remain two metres apart if they met outdoors will again be able to stay overnight at each other’s homes.
The move came ahead of a further easing of the coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England, with the re-opening of non-essential shops on Monday.
Five-year-old Heidi, from Worthing, West Sussex, was able to embrace her grandmother who lives alone and can now pair with one other household without observing social distancing rules.
Heidi’s father Gareth Snow, 37, filmed the moment the “best friends” were reunited.
“Today we have been able to reunite Nana Pam with her granddaughter and best friend Heidi,” he told the PA news agency.
“It has been a long three months of FaceTime and doorstep hellos at a distance, which has been hard on both of them as they are usually so close.”
In Northern Ireland – which is adopting a similar relaxation of the regulations for people living alone – the shops began opening their doors on Friday.
Announcing the plan for “support bubbles” earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was a “targeted intervention” designed to help those most isolated by the lockdown.
However, the latest batch of papers released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) revealed misgivings among the experts at the prospect of social bubbling.
A report of its meeting on May 13 urged “strong caution”, warning it could create “significant unwanted effects” – particularly if it was introduced alongside other easing of the rules.
It said there was a “significant potential risk” if larger households are allowed to bubble together – something the Government is not currently proposing.
Instead, it has said that adults living alone or single parents with children under 18 can pair up with one other household of any size.
They will then effectively be treated as a single household for the purpose of the rules – with members able to visit indoors without the need to follow the two-metre rule.
In other developments:
– Another 67 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have died in hospital in England, taking the total number of confirmed deaths in hospitals in England to 27,927, NHS England said.
– A total of 2,447 patients have died in Scotland after testing positive for coronavirus, up by five from 2,442 on Friday, the Scottish Government has announced.
– Public Health Wales said another six people had died after testing positive for Covid-19, taking the total number of deaths to 1,441.
– Two further coronavirus-linked deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland, taking the total recorded by the Department of Health to 541.
– Transport Secretary Grants Shapps has denied the chief nursing officer was dropped from the No 10 briefings because she would not defend Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser.
While the bubble plan is clearly popular with many, it is nevertheless likely to reignite concerns that the Government is moving too quickly as it seeks to re-start the economy.
The Prime Minister and his chief medical and scientific advisers have faced growing criticism that they were to slow to impose the lockdown in March, resulting in thousands of deaths.
At the same time, Mr Johnson is under intense pressure to get the economy going again amid fears that it could take years to fully recover.
The cost of the restrictions was dramatically underlined by official figures showing GDP shrank by a fifth in April in an unprecedented fall-off as activity ground to a halt.
The Prime Minister acknowledged the economy had been “very badly hit” but predicted it would “bounce back” as confidence returned.
However, there are fears of further job losses ahead as the Government’s furlough scheme – which has seen the state pay up to 80% of employees wages – begins to unwind from August.
Mr Johnson is planning to visit a high street next week, according to The Times, as he seeks to persuade people that it is safe to go out and start spending.
Meanwhile, the Government is facing continuing calls to relax the two-metre rule – with businesses warning that it is hampering the return to normal activity.
The hospitality sector in particular has said re-opening many pubs and restaurants will not be viable while the restriction remains in place.
The Prime Minister is said to be keen to lift the rule – which is also seen as an obstacle to the wider re-opening of many schools.
However, the Sage papers show that some of the scientists advising the Government believe it remains necessary.
A paper from the Environmental and Modelling Group dated June 4 said that reducing it to a one metre rule, as some are calling for, could increase the risks of passing on the disease by between two and 10 times.
It suggested that, as a minimum, any easing should be accompanied by the wearing of face masks or face coverings.
Overall, however, it concluded that people should “continue to observe a distance of two metres when face-to-face and avoid prolonged exposure to other people”.