People queue to take a COVID-19 test at a mobile coronavirus testing centre on Clapham Common in south London Image Credit: AFP

For the first time on Monday in at least six months in some parts of England, people could experience the simple please of having a haircut, browse and shop in stores or socialise together outdoors as England entered the first stage of its road map out of national lockdown.

Elsewhere in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the lifting of restrictions are about too to be eased — each of the four nations that make up the United Kingdom set their own public health rules — but together there is a silver lining now to the clouds of coronavirus that have covered the islands for the past year.

The reality is that the joys of lockdown being eased have been tempered by the knowledge that the UK has been the hardest hit nation in Europe during this pandemic, the death toll stands at more than 127,000 people, and there are countless families who grieve for loved ones lost to this virus.

This collective experience should add a note of caution to all moving forward — a constant reminder of how vulnerable the freedoms that Britons are reclaiming now indeed are, and together they cannot afford to let their guard drop against this virus.

Public health measures, social distancing, good hand hygiene and the knowledge of the trials and tribulations of these past months should provide an abundance of caution moving forward. Yes, things are returning to some sense of normality, but things will never quite be the way they were.

Certainly, the advances experienced by Britons on Monday have only been made possible by a mass vaccination programme organised by the UK Government and the National Health Services. As things stand now, some 33 million Britons have received at least one dose of three vaccines available for use in the UK, and more than 7 million of the most vulnerable have received both doses.

Yes, the vaccination programme has been a success, and the plummeting caseloads and death rates show that the only way out of the worst of this crisis is by dosing in large numbers. Even as immunity increases across the UK, there is still a need to protect as many as possible by following appropriate public health measures.

This pandemic has been the greatest challenge for the UK since the end of the Second World War. It is not yet over. But in the words of wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill, this is the end of the beginning.