âVery celebratoryâ: pub customers in England enjoy lockdown easing
Celebration was in the air as England welcomed the return of outdoor drinking and dining on Monday, but the easing of lockdown was also met with concerns about a lack of social distancing, and a wider sense of nervousness within the hospitality sector as businesses tried to operate at significantly lower capacity and with some confusion over the rules.
As people braved the inclement weather to enjoy their first night out in months, images circulated on social media showing packed streets and âvery littleâ social distancing in Soho in London.
Roads had been closed to make room for al fresco dining and drinking, and despite the presence of police and Covid marshals there seemed to be few interventions to enforce social distancing.
Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, told PA the atmosphere was âlike a return to the ârealâ Soho of the 1990sâ â or âlike how I imagine VE Dayâ.
âThere is a wonderfully raucous hysteria everywhere. Itâs very celebratory. There is very little social distancing. A distinct sense that people feel the Covid restrictions have ended,â he said.
Boris Johnson had urged people to âcontinue to behave responsiblyâ as the restrictions were eased. Non-essential stores also reopened, along with indoor gyms, swimming pools, beauty salons and zoos.
Despite temperatures dropping below freezing in Newcastle, slots at The Bank and Switch bars were fully booked long before their doors opened at the stroke of midnight.
In Londonâs Kingly Court, a manager at Pizza Pilgrims said reopening had been âamazingâ and that staff had done well to handle social distancing across the restaurantâs courtyard and street-side tables.
âIt wasnât as bad as Soho here. It went really well, much busier than expected to be honest. We werenât expecting to have a long queue from open to close,â they said.
There were similar scenes in Manchesterâs Northern Quarter, where people were âbuzzingâ to be out socialising again after months of lockdown.
In the middle of another busy shift on Tuesday afternoon, staff at the cocktail bar Wolf At The Door said the reopening had gone extremely well. âItâs been mega, so good, really really busy. Weâve had queues of people waiting for 2 hours to have a drink outside, we couldnât be happier.â
But amid the jubilant scenes, there were fears that many businesses will not survive on outdoor hospitality alone. Though it expected 40% of Englandâs pubs had reopened, the British Beer and Pub Association warned there was nervousness among businesses, many of whom were operating at less than 20% capacity.
Its chief executive, Emma McClarkin, said: âWe should remember that those opening will be loss-making, with the ability to trade beyond break-even coming with the removal of all restrictions.
âWith so many pubs still not opening, though, itâs crucial the government sticks to its roadmap and allows pubs to reopen indoors from 17 May and without any restrictions at all from 21 June. That is the only way our pubs can trade viably and begin to fully recover.â
There was also some confusion over the governmentâs guidance on what counts as outdoors and whether groups still needed to be 2 metres apart when outside.
The guidances states: âTo be considered âoutdoorsâ, shelters, marquees and other structures can have a roof but need to have at least 50% of the area of their walls open at all times whilst in use.â This raises questions over the whether outdoor structures such as igloos, greenhouses, sheds, tents and beach huts are allowed.
Paul Mellor, who runs the Cube Bar in Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, wrote to the prime minister after the local council said his walled outdoor seating area was non-compliant. He could not reopen despite being âfully stocked up to serve more than 1,000 meals that weâve got booked in,â he told the Blackpool Gazette.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade association UK Hospitality, said that despite some signs of strong sales in a week of adverse weather conditions, the industry was âfar from being out of the woodsâ.
She told the Guardian: âFor the majority of hospitality venues the start of this week marked another day of closure. Even for those permitted to trade, with indoor areas dormant and severely reduced capacity theyâre unlikely to have broken even, let alone turned a profit. The sector remains in a fragile state and will do for some time with uncertainty still looming over businesses.â
Earlier on Tuesday, Prof Adam Finn, a paediatrician on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said people should continue to observe social distancing regardless of the success of the vaccine programme.
He told BBC Breakfast: âIf I [went to a beer garden], I would certainly avoid close contact with other people. The risks of transmission outside are relatively low, but not if you start coming into very close contact with people. Itâs not like itâs all over, we can all go back to normal.â
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, described âa joyous dayâ but warned âthe virus is still out there and very infectiousâ so people should remain cautious.
He added: âWe canât ignore whatâs going on in the rest of the world â every other day new variants are being reported and infection is rife.â