COVID-19: Crowds gather in London’s Soho to celebrate pubs reopening as England lockdown eases

There was a real party atmosphere in London’s Soho on the day that venues emerged from lockdown.

Tables were packed with customers braving the chilly weather to have their first drink or meal out in months.

By nightfall, crowds in Soho grew dense, and the party was in full swing.

Many danced in the streets and in squares, the joy of emerging from lockdown palpable.

For Diana, a reunion with her girlfriends brought happiness, but also anxiety.

“I was actually quite nervous and apprehensive today after so many months at home. It’s given me slight social anxiety because I’ve spent so much time at home, but it was excited nerves,” she said.

Her friend Debs booked a table the moment Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the roadmap to reopening.

“As soon as we got that date from Boris I thought we have to lock that in, we started a WhatsApp group and said we have to go out – it’s essential.”

Cem started the afternoon with a pint in Greenwich with friends, before doing a pub crawl in Soho. “It feels great, being at home for so many months was depressing – now we’re having drinks and going with the flow.”

Friends Mark and Mike were also enjoying cocktails in the sunshine.

“It feels great. It’s amazing, there’s nothing like it,” said Mike. “I’m a bit concerned about COVID but with the right precautions you should be fine.”

But not every pub or restaurant has the outdoor space needed to put up tables, and for nightclub owners, like Jeremy Joseph, the owner of G-A-Y and Heaven nightclubs, recovery is still not on the horizon.

“It’s bittersweet, sweet and positive side is that we move forward on another stage of the roadmap.

“But the negative is that we have only about 50 seats out for G-A-Y bar, but when we’re open normally we have the capacity of 450. We’re not making any money at the moment – we’re just reducing our losses.”

There’s also the looming worry about the potential for yet another shutdown in the future – this is not the first time hospitality has emerged from restrictions only to have their hopes for recovery dashed again.

“We start something off, we get into a momentum and then we stop again, it’s the stop/start issue,” said Lee Jones, manager of Balans restaurant in London’s Soho. “But it needed to be done, but we felt like we restarted a couple of times, and we had no sense of momentum there.”

The prime minister has urged the nation to be cautious. On the day restaurants welcomed their first customers in months, the biggest surge testing operation to date started in parts of South London due to cases of the South African variant detected there.

Scientists have warned we still have to be careful. Lawrence Young, virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick, described Monday as “an important step”, but he urged restraint.

“We’ve all sacrificed so much over the last few months and it is a joyous day, it’s a step – an important step – on the roadmap to freedom.

“So it’s a joyous day, but also a day when we need to operate with a degree of caution.”

The hope now is that after three long lockdowns, these hard-won freedoms are here to stay.

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