London       -     The UK government said Sunday it will reopen places of worship “for private individual prayer” on June 15 as it continues to progressively ease coronavirus restrictions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said services and worship groups will still be banned for the time being due to concern that the virus spreads more quickly in enclosed spaces. “People of all faiths have shown enormous patience and forbearance, unable to mark Easter, Passover, Ramazan or Vaisakhi with friends and family in the traditional way,” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said in a statement. “We are now able to move forwards with a limited but important return to houses of worship.” Britain’s official COVID-19 death toll of 40,465 is second only to that of the United States. But cases across Europe have fallen off sharply and Britain is now cautiously proceeding with partial school reopenings and the resumption of basic business activity that ended when the country shut down on March 23. Johnson’s government also intends to reopen all stores on June 15. Restaurants and pubs will be allowed to seat a limited number of customers in a week. But Johnson has had to weather intense criticism for his handling of the health crisis. Critics say Britain had ample time to take the appropriate precautions -- such as shutting down retail and closing schools -- after seeing the disease spread from China to Italy and other parts of Europe at the start of the year. The government is now coming under attack for starting to lift the restriction too quickly. The average reinfection rate in some northwestern and southwestern parts of Britain is still perilously close to the 1.0 figure above which the virus begins to spread. Health Secretary Matt Hancock argued that the government was proceeding with abundant caution because it was wary of the dire economic effects of a second lockdown. “The worst thing for the economy would be a second spike,” he told Sky News. Hancock also dismissed reports of a raging policy clash between pro-business government ministers and more health conscious scientific advisers.

“I care deeply about getting the economy going and the best way to get the economy going is to ensure that we get the number of new infections right down,” he said.