After Enduring World’s Longest Restrictions, Britain Begins to Unlock
On Monday, public life resumed in England as shops, gyms and some pubs reopened. We have the latest as the country comes out of lockdown.,
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 drinks since being forced to close in January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns was 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 resumed business at noon. Friends reunited, families shared a meal at an outdoor cafe together for the first time in months and as Britons basked in the late afternoon sun, the morning chill seemed faded, replaced by a collective smile and sigh of relief.
“It’s like being out of prison,” said Kate Asani. She and two friends, Maria Ramsakova and Dezlin Vergotine, sat small table in the back garden of the Carlton Tavern in the Kilburn area of London, basking in each other’s company as much as the sunshine.
After months of isolation, she wasn’t quite she remembered how to be with others. “I was so nervous on the train here,” she said. “What do I wear? What do I say? It’s been so long.”
With the return of one of Britain’s most cherished institutions — even if pubs were 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 that 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, 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.
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.
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.”
As Britain moved cautiously to resume public life on Monday, some countries in continental Europe were moving in the other direction, imposing or debating even more stringent restrictions to battle the spread of the virus, fueled by the same variant that had earlier caused Britain’s cases to explode.
After months of tough restrictions, Britain now has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe, reporting just 1,730 cases on Sunday. In contrast, France on Sunday recorded more than 34,000 cases, according to the government. Germany’s total number of infections surpassed 3 million on Monday, with more than 13,000 new infections during the previous 24 hours.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, who struggled to avoid a third national lockdown even as cases rose, has been forced to reverse course. An already constrained life became even more constricted this month, when people were barred from traveling more than six miles from their homes, outdoor drinking was banned and schools were closed.
In Germany, the number of cases has been climbing steadily in recent weeks, setting off a prolonged political battle over how to respond.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has been pitted in a deadlocked dispute against the country’s 16 state leaders, who are responsible for implementing public health policy.
The governors have pushed for a more patchwork approach, enforcing restrictions on those regions where infections are highest, while allowing reopenings in places where hospitals are not overwhelmed.In an attempt to break the deadlock, the chancellor is contemplating tweaking the country’s law governing how pandemics are handled to allow the federal government more control in places where infection rates are out of control.
Only 15 percent of Germans have received their first vaccination since the country launched its inoculation campaign at the end of last year, compared with more than 47 percent of Britons.
In an open letter, leading doctors from the country’s Society for Aerosol Research urged government leaders to focus on reducing contacts indoors instead of requiring people to wear masks in pedestrian areas and while jogging.
“The ongoing debates about strolling along river promenades, spending time in beer gardens, jogging or biking have long since proven counterproductive,” the letter read. “If our citizens consider all forms of interpersonal contacts as dangerous, we paradoxically reinforce the pandemic fatigue that is evident everywhere. Nothing dulls us more than a permanent state of alarm.”
On a more promising note, after weeks of it own national lockdown, Italy is starting to see a decline in cases, and although the numbers are still higher than Britain’s, much of the country began moving toward looser restrictions on Monday.
After roughly a month of confinement, Italians in most of the country are now allowed to shop in stores besides supermarkets and pharmacies, and get their hair done. Movement across towns and regions is still strictly limited and a 10 p.m. curfew remains in place.
The pressure on hospitals and the death rate remain high as many of Italy’s older citizens are still unvaccinated. “We can plan weeks in which I hope there can be fewer limitations,” Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, said on Italian television on Sunday night, “but we have to do it with great caution.”
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.”
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
Andrew Testa for The New York Times
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. Elliott shouted back. “This is so frustrating.”
Bourke then went to buy Ms. Elliott 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. Elliott 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.
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?
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.
If the whole British stiff upper lip cliche is true and the frustrations of lockdown were hidden from public view, one place the stress of the past few months could not be hidden was in the hair. Split ends, gray roots and tousled hair told their own story.
Monday was the first time this year that customers were allowed inside beauty salons. Hairdressers reported full appointment books for several weeks, and many planned to work longer hours and extra days to meet demand and try to save their struggling businesses.
Still, Fereshteh Guillon, who owns Hair by Fairy in central London, said she was feeling anxious as the salon reopened.
“I don’t feel that confidence,” said Ms. Guillon, who is also a stylist.
She was forced to lay off three employees, so she was left with just one person on staff.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to survive or not,” she said.
While hairdressers and beauty salons are now open, social distancing restrictions mean limits on the number of people they can service, cutting business 70 percent on average, said Richard Lambert, the chief executive of the National Hair and Beauty Federation.
“It has been devastating across the hair and beauty sector,” Mr. Lambert said, adding that about 4,000 of the 40,000 or so salons in Britain had closed permanently during the pandemic.
Some have tried to skirt government restrictions, booking furtive appointments at home or in vacant barbershops to keep business afloat.
But across Britain, over 60 percent of hair and beauty businesses entered 2021 with no financial reserves, and even those that received government support have not been able to pay off their debts.
“For many businesses, the government support just wasn’t enough,” Mr. Lambert said. “Everyone is hugely excited to get back into the salons and desperate to recover their businesses.”
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 are expected to build up GBP180 billion in excess savings by June, according to estimates by the Office for Budget Responsibility. 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.”
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.
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.
Polly Robertson’s wait for the reopening of her local pub — the Carlton Tavern — has been unique in this shared national moment, as it’s closure was counted not in months but in years.
So when she raised her first glass there Monday — a non-alcoholic gin and tonic — surrounded by friends and family, it tasted as much of relief that the nation’s strict lockdown had begun to ease as it did of personal victory, after a prolonged campaign to save this place.
“It’s wonderful coming in, just seeing people we haven’t seen in a long, long time, not just because of Covid, but because we had not location to meet up,” she said as she sat out in the sunny garden on Monday.
Six years ago, the neighborhood watched as the Carlton Tavern, built in the 1920s, was reduced to rubble when the building’s overseas owners skirted local laws and had it demolished to make way for luxury apartments.
Ms. Robertson alongside other neighborhood campaigners and local lawmakers fought for the building to be restored, and the developers were eventually ordered to rebuild it brick by brick. English Heritage, which had surveyed the pub before its 2015 demolition as it was being considered for historic status, had recorded the layout of its rooms and taken molds of its distinctive architectural features before the bulldozers came, so there was something to work with.
“It’s identical,” Ms. Robertson said of the pub, though there is a newly expanded beer garden where the pub’s first patrons were served on Monday.
From the ocher red letters spelling out “Charrington Sparkling Ales and Famous Stout” on its facade to the swooping brass door handles to the elaborate plasterwork inside, the pub’s original charm and character has been recreated.
The tavern was relaunched on Monday by Tom Rees and Ben Martin, business partners who have a deep connection to the area and a background running pubs, who hope to see it once again at the heart of the community.
“There have been people wandering past, wanting to talk to us, telling us great stories about how they used to work here, they used to drink here, how their parents used to drink here,” Mr. Rees said. “It’s amazing really.”
While the middle of a pandemic may seem like a strange time to embark on a new venture reviving the pub, especially with so many businesses struggling to survive at all, Mr. Rees believes the prolonged lockdown brought a new appreciation for local spaces like this one.
“I think the pandemic has forced people to re-evaluate their local area and their relationships to it, and all those great memories they had in these places,” he said. “The pub is where people live their lives.”
It seemed fitting to its new owners that the pub’s rebirth would begin 100 years after its founding. The Carlton Tavern first opened its doors in 1921, and was one of the few buildings in this part of Maida Vale in North London to survive bombing during World War II. Its location at the junction of Kilburn and Maida Vale is also at a junction of two London worlds, with one nearby street dominated by luxury apartment blocks and another by subsidized council housing.
On Saturday, two days before the pub welcomed back visitors, the new owners and an army of workers and volunteers, including Ms. Robertson, were putting the finishing touches on the pub.
“It’s the building, it’s the community, it’s so much more than just a pub,” she said, noting that many people in the local community live in flats without gardens and truly valued the space.
Seeing the Carlton Tavern restored and reopened will mean a lot, particularly for older residents who made decades of memories within its red brick walls.
“The city can be a very lonely place,” Ms. Robertson said as she wiped a dusty film from a mirror behind the bar. “And this, it’s a familiar place. This is their place as much as anything.”