After Enduring World’s Longest Restrictions, Britain Begins to Unlock

On Monday, public life resumes in England as shops, gyms and some pubs reopen. We have the latest as the country comes out of lockdown.,

LiveUpdated April 12, 2021, 8:53 a.m. ETApril 12, 2021, 8:53 a.m. ET

The country has lived under the most strenuous level of government restrictions for the longest period of time in the world. On Monday, public life resumes in England as shops, gyms and some pubs reopen.

Getting beauty treatments at a salon in London on Monday.
Getting beauty treatments at a salon in London on Monday.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

The beginning of the end of Britain’s lockdown — one of the longest and most stringent in the world — came with a pint at a pub.

Just past the stroke of midnight on Monday, a few select establishments in England served their first drink since being forced to close in January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns were imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Later in the morning, thousands of gyms, salons and retail stores opened their doors for the first time in months, bringing a frisson of life to streets long frozen in a state of suspended animation.

Thousands more pubs will resume business at noon, and with the return of one of Britain’s most cherished institutions — even if limited to outdoor service — the country took its first major step in a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government has said that it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following separate but similar timetables, under which some restrictions eased on Monday in England will remain in place a while longer.

Despite chilly weather with occasional snow flurries, the moment was greeted with an enthusiasm born of more than a year of deprivation — as the once unimaginable notion of conscripting to government decree has become a way of life.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a major step forward in our road map to freedom.”

In the first weeks of the global health crisis — when the World Health Organization was still debating whether to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — a new word entered the popular lexicon.

Lockdown in English. Le confinement in French. El confinamiento in Spanish. But first came fengcheng in China, literally meaning to lock down a city.

At the time, as images from ghostly streets of Wuhan, China, started to grab the world’s attention and it became clear that the virus respected no national borders, there was a debate about whether Western democracies could — or should — resort to such extreme measures.

As hospitals struggled to deal with a flood of patients and death tolls soared, the debate was overtaken by the reality that traditional methods of infectious disease control, like testing and contact tracing, had failed.

Britain, which held out longer than many of its European neighbors, entered its first national lockdown on March 26, 2020.

Since then, lockdown has come to mean many things to many people — dictated as often by individual circumstance and risk assessment as government decree.

While no country matched China’s draconian measures, liberal democracies have been engaged in a yearlong effort to balance economic, political and public health concerns.

Last spring, that meant that much of the world looked alike, with about four billion people — half of humanity — living under some form of stay-at-home order.

A year later, national approaches to the virus vary wildly. And no region has relied on lockdowns to the extent Europe has.

Although it is difficult to compare lockdowns, since the use of the word differs in different places, researchers at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government have developed a system ranking the rules’ stringency. They found that Britain has spent 175 days at its “maximum stringency level.”

“In this sense, we can say that the U.K. is globally unique in spending the longest period of time at a very high level of stringency,” said Thomas Hale, an associate professor of global public policy at Oxford.

Though there was still a winter chill in the air Monday morning, people in Britain flocked to stores and restaurants. After so many false dawns, there was a widespread hope that, this time, there would be no going back.

At the 17th Century George Inn pub in South London.
At the 17th Century George Inn pub in South London.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

It was no accident that Chaucer set the opening scene of “The Canterbury Tales” in a pub: a place where friends gather, strangers meet and the unexpected can happen.

That is just as true in the 21st century as it was in the 14th, when Chaucer wrote his stories, said Pete Brown, the chairman of the British Guild of Beer Writers and a columnist specializing in pubs.

It is hard to find a year quite like the last one for the British pub. Through plagues and fires, wars and depressions, the nation’s pubs largely stayed open.

“I do accept that what we’re doing is extraordinary. We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of freeborn people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last March, when he announced the closures of all pubs, restaurants, bars and cafes to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Days earlier, after Mr. Johnson recommended that the public stay away from pubs and other social venues, his own father said: “Of course I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub.”)

Mr. Brown said that while the pub’s role in public life had changed in recent decades, it remained central to how Britain sees itself — and Monday’s reopening marked an important step to returning to normality.

“The pub exists in two different states these days: its practical use and then its symbolic status, which is huge even for people who don’t go to pubs very often,” he said.

It’s why King George V resisted calls for a prohibition on alcohol during World War I even as he himself pledged abstinence and why Churchill worked to ensure pubs were supplied with ale even during the darkest hours of the World War II.

“Even the Black Death did not lead to the closing of the pubs,” Mr. Brown said.

But the closures and shifting rules governing the hospitality sector over the past year has meant 2.1 billion pints of beer unsold — a loss of more than $11 billion in revenue, according to British Beer and Pub Association.

The lobbying group estimated that 2,000 pubs have been lost forever, despite government loans and other assistance programs.

The lobbying group estimated that 2,000 pubs have been lost forever, despite government loans and other assistance programs.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

There are tens of thousands of pubs in England, but less than half have the outdoor space needed to open on Monday. The others will have to wait for the next stage, which will happen no earlier than May 17.

Mr. Brown, speaking over a pint outside the George Inn — rebuilt after a fire in 1677 and near where the Tabard Inn from “The Canterbury Tales” once stood — said that Monday marked the end of a long, dark period in the pub world.

As the picnic tables outside the only surviving galleried coaching inn in London, its wooden porches sitting in the shadow of the glass Shard tower, began to fill, Mr. Brown smiled when the first pint arrived.

He loved the history of the George Inn, a place where Charles Dickens once drank and a reminder that the arc of history is long but for Britons, there is one constant.

“As long as the pub is there,” he said, “everything will be OK.”

Treating a Covid-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Homerton University Hospital in London, in January.
Treating a Covid-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Homerton University Hospital in London, in January.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The British lockdown that is being eased on Monday is the nation’s third. But it was first aimed at containing a variant of the coronavirus — offering an early warning to the world of the threat posed by the evolution of the virus and the difficulties in trying to control this particular form.

When the variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first discovered late last year in the southeastern English county of Kent, much about it was a mystery.

It appeared to be more contagious, but to what degree? Was it more deadly? How far had it spread?

The picture is becoming clearer. The most recent estimates suggest it is about 60 percent more contagious than the original form of the virus, and significantly more deadly.

That same variant is now spreading across continental Europe, prompting governments like those of France and Italy to impose new national lockdowns. The variant has also added urgency to the vaccination campaign in the United States — which is getting doses into millions of arms every day but still might not be fast enough to avoid yet another wave.

The vaccines being used in many countries have shown to be effective against it.

Britain’s vaccination campaign was launched with an urgency dictated by the moment, prioritizing first doses to spread a degree of protection as quickly and widely as possible.

Even after the lockdown was put in place, the variant propelled the country’s daily fatality rates to levels not seen since the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in April.

On Friday, the number of people with Covid-19 on their death certificate was just shy of 150,000.

But another statistic now offers hope. Nearly 32 million people have been given at least one dose of a vaccine — roughly half the adult population.

Officials are confident the combined effects of the lockdown and mass vaccination will provide a wall of protection. But, as England’s chief medical officer Chris Witty warned, it is a “leaky wall.”

A large majority of people under the age of 50 have yet to be offered a jab. And with supplies constrained around the world, eligibility is unlikely to be expanded for weeks or more.

A line outside an athletic wear shop in central London early Monday.
A line outside an athletic wear shop in central London early Monday. Credit…Alberto Pezzali/Associated Press

The once-routine act of visiting a clothes store or shoe merchant took on a new meaning for the first shoppers who made an early-morning pilgrimage to Oxford Street, London’s busiest retail road that in recent months has been a desolate stretch of boarded up shops and empty stores.

Outside Niketown, JD Sports and Foot Locker, crowds were lining up by 7 a.m. as groups of mostly young men waited in line for a chance to get their hands on new sneakers.

Julian Randall, a dedicated collector who has spent the last 15 years amassing sneakers, left his London home at 2 a.m. to be there. He said he preferred to buy in store, rather than online, where it was harder to find specific shoes at a reasonable price.

“It’s virtually impossible to hop online and buy the shoes online — you don’t even have a chance,” he said. “In this day and age, we are in a recession, and I don’t want to be paying resell prices for shoes. I want to buy retail.”

The shops have remained mostly shuttered since the week of Christmas, when nonessential stores were forced to close across the region, but elsewhere in England, the closures have been in place even longer after coronavirus cases surged.

Retailers hope that there will be a splurge in spending by people who have amassed a record amount of savings — nearly $250 billion according to government estimates, roughly 10 percent of the Britain’s gross domestic product.

But for many stores, it is too late.

The flagship store of the British retailer Topshop on Oxford Circus, once a destination for fashion-hungry young adults, permanently shut its doors after its parent company, Arcadia Group, filed for bankruptcy last year.

Plywood boards cover the front of Debenhams, another retail chain that floundered during the pandemic, its extensive window displays now bare. The two companies crumbled within days of one another, as the country bounced from one lockdown to the next and the pandemic hastened the end of British high-street brands that were already teetering on the edge.

But the shuttered windows stood alongside some hopeful signs. Plastered in big letters on the shop front of John Lewis, a British department store, there was a clear message: “Come on in London, brighter days are coming.”

(Even that retailer has struggled, and it has explored converting parts of its Oxford Street store into office space.)

For those stores that did reopen, coronavirus precautions seemed to be front of mind, at least as the day began. Bokara Begum wanted to be as safe as she could during her shopping outing to Primark, so she arrived as doors swung open to beat the crowd.

“It’s just after 7 a.m., so I took advantage of that and came out here early,” she said, two brown paper bags in tow. “I was a bit panicky, really — I thought there would be a massive queue.”

Shakespeare's theater, the Globe, has a long history of closures and reopenings.
Shakespeare’s theater, the Globe, has a long history of closures and reopenings.Credit…Andy Rain/EPA, via Shutterstock

In Shakespeare’s time, the plague repeatedly shut down London’s theaters.

It closed them in 1592, and again in 1603.

Shakespeare kept writing throughout both Elizabethan versions of lockdown. The plague might have been a time “when madmen lead the blind,” as he wrote in “King Lear,” but it certainly wasn’t one for stopping work.

The plague was not the only threat that shut down his theater, the Globe. It burned down in 1613; after it was rebuilt, the Puritans shut it for good three decades later.

Even as Londoners were celebrating the reopening of many pubs, restaurants, salons and gyms on Monday, theaters across the city remained firmly shut. They will not be allowed to open before May 17.

That decision has prompted regular complaints from culture figures, questioning why people are able to mingle in stores, but not in theaters where distancing can be easily enforced, but most seem resigned to the fate.

There was one exception on Monday: the Globe itself — the reconstructed version of Shakespeare’s old stomping ground on the banks of the Thames.

A steady stream of actors arrived on Monday for the first rehearsal of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” scheduled to open May 19.

“Hello, darling!” Peter Bourke, a veteran actor playing Oberon, King of the Faeries, in the play, shouted when he saw Victoria Elliott, playing Titania, the fairy queen.

“Oh, I wish I could hug you,” Ms. Elliot shouted back. “This is so frustrating.”

Bourke then went to buy Ms. Elliot a coffee — a flat white with nut-blend milk — only to quickly return, having forgotten her order. “If I forget that, imagine how bad I’ll be with the lines,” Mr. Bourke said, with a laugh.

Both actors insisted they were not annoyed that theaters could not reopen. Things had to be taken slowly, Ms. Elliot said, adding she knew someone who had died during the pandemic. “I’m just so grateful to be here, alive and with a job,” she said.

The actors also had a lot of work to do during rehearsals, Mr. Bourke said, especially since they were no longer allowed to touch onstage and so would have to work out how to stage the play anew. “All the hugs, all the tumbling and the lovers all over each other, we won’t be doing that now,” Bourke said.

As Bourke spoke, more actors arrived — each having been given a specific time slot to avoid congestion at the theater’s entrance. They gave each other air hugs and immediately started joking around, as if they had seen each other only yesterday.

Customers with their first pints of beer outside The Kentish Belle in London shortly after midnight on Monday.
Customers with their first pints of beer outside The Kentish Belle in London shortly after midnight on Monday.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

One man showed up in his robe. Another couple had made a two-hour trek from a neighboring county.

A little over a dozen patrons, shivering in the Arctic chill gripping England, stood at the ready as Nicholas Hair, owner of The Kentish Belle, counted the seconds until the clock ticked over to a minute past midnight.

“Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats!” he said to applause.

Then, for the first time in months, he poured and served a pint.

“I mean, I’ve not seen my friends like this together for so long,” said Ryan Osbourne, 22. “When we have an opportunity like today to bring my friends together, it’s incredible.”

Not all pubs will be allowed to reopen on Monday — only the estimated 15,000 with outdoor space, for outdoor service only. And most of those will open later in the day.

But Mr. Hair had secured a special license to open The Kentish Belle, a small pub specializing in artisanal beers in a quiet southeast London neighborhood, at the earliest possible opportunity.

Nicholas Hair, owner of The Kentish Belle, counted the seconds until the clock ticked over to a minute past midnight.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

He was circled by news crews as he prepared to open.

The past year had been “dreadful,” he said, adding that he had not been able to access government funding for the past two months. “There are a lot of businesses like this that won’t survive.”

Uma Nunn, 43, traveled from Surrey to attend the night’s festivities. “We just wanted to show our support,” she said.

Her husband, Benjamin Nunn, a beer writer who spent the last open day for pubs at The Kentish Belle, said he thought it only fitting to return for the first. “This is one of the big things in my life, beer and music,” he said. “Now to be able to get that started up again, it’s energizing, it’s exciting.”

“It’s the middle of he night but hey, hopefully this will never happen again,” he added.

Decorating a restaurant before its reopening on April 12.
Decorating a restaurant before its reopening on April 12.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

For the past year, the British economy has yo-yoed with the government’s pandemic restrictions. On Monday, as shops, outdoor dining, gyms and hairdressers reopened across England, the next bounce began.

The pandemic has left Britain with deep economic wounds that have shattered historical records: the worst recession in three centuries and record levels of government borrowing outside wartime.

Last March and April, there was an economic slump unlike anything ever seen before when schools, workplaces and businesses abruptly shut. Then a summertime boom, when restrictions eased and the government helped usher people out of their homes with a popular meal-discount initiative called “Eat Out to Help Out.”

Beginning in the fall, a second wave of the pandemic stalled the recovery, though the economic impact wasn’t as severe as it had been last spring. Still, the government has spent about 344 billion pounds, or $471 billion, on its pandemic response. To pay for it, the government has borrowed a record sum and is planning the first increase in corporate taxes since 1974 to help rebalance its budget.

By the end of the year, the size of Britain’s economy will be back where it was at the end of 2019, the Bank of England predicts. “The economy is poised like a coiled spring,” Andy Haldane, the central bank’s chief economist said in February. “As its energies are released, the recovery should be one to remember after a year to forget.”

Even though a lot of retail spending has shifted online, reopening shop doors will make a huge difference to many businesses.

Daunt Books, a small chain of independent bookstores, was busy preparing to reopen for the past week, including offering a click-and-collect service in all of its stores. Throughout the lockdown, a skeleton crew “worked harder than they’ve ever worked before, just to keep a trickle” of revenue coming in from online and telephone orders, said Brett Wolstencroft, the bookseller’s manager.

“The worst moment for us was December,” Mr. Wolstencroft said, when shops were shut in large parts of the country beginning on Dec. 20. “Realizing you’re losing your last bit of Christmas is exceptionally tough.”

He says he is looking forward to having customers return to browse the shelves and talk to the sellers. “We’d sort of turned ourselves into a warehouse” during the lockdown, he said, “but that doesn’t work for a good bookshop.”

With the likes of pubs, hairdressers, cinemas and hotels shut for months on end, Brits have built up more than GBP180 billion in excess savings, according to government estimates. That money, once people can get out more, is expected to be the engine of this recovery — even though economists are debating how much of this windfall will end up in the tills of these businesses.

Monday is just one phase of the reopening. Pubs can serve customers only in outdoor seating areas, and less than half, about 15,000, have such facilities. Hotels will also remain closed for at least another month alongside indoor dining, museums and theaters. The next reopening phase is scheduled for May 17.

Over all, two-fifths of hospitality businesses have outside space, said Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of U.K. Hospitality, a trade group.

“Monday is a really positive start,” she said. “It helps us to get businesses gradually back open, get staff gradually back off furlough and build up toward the real reopening of hospitality that will be May 17.”

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