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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Britain rejoices and asks: are lockdowns finally finished?

Monday marked the start of a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government says it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England.

By: New York Times | London |
April 13, 2021 8:54:19 am
People return to Carnaby Street in London on Monday, April 12, 2021, as retail shops reopen and the country emerges from a COVID-19 lockdown. (Mary Turner/The New York Times)

Written by Marc Santora, Megan Specia and Eric Nagourney

In China it was fengcheng. In Spain it was el confinamiento. In France it was le confinement. In Britain it was known as lockdown, plain and simple — but it had the distinction of being one of the longest and most stringent in the world.

On Monday, that finally began drawing to an end.

After months of coronavirus restrictions that encroached on almost every aspect of daily life, the English celebrated a hopeful new chapter, many of them in what seemed the most fitting way possible: with a pint at a pub.

“It’s like being out of prison,” said Kate Asani, who was sitting at a small table with two friends in the back garden of the Carlton Tavern in the Kilburn area of London, where they basked in one another’s company as much as in the sunshine.

For people across Europe, struggling with yet another wave of the pandemic and demoralized by a vaccine rollout that, outside Britain, has been deeply troubled, this is hardly a time to rejoice.

And Britons — who have lost more than 150,000 people to the pandemic — know better than anyone that they are facing a wily adversary, a shape-shifter of a virus that spins off variants that can threaten medical advances with a few mutations.

But just past the stroke of midnight Monday, a few select establishments in England served their first drinks since being forced to close in December and January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns was imposed to limit the spread of the virus.

Customers get a haircut at the Well Groomed Barbers in the Hackney neighborhood of London on Monday, April 12, 2021, following a COVID-19 lockdown. (Mary Turner/The New York Times)

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. Friends reunited, and families shared a meal at outdoor cafes for the first time in months.

The weather may have been chilly — there were even some snow flurries — and pubs were limited to outdoor service. But the moment was embraced with an enthusiasm born of more than a year of on-and-off deprivation and uncertainty, one in which a once-unimaginable level of government decree became a way of life.

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

Monday marked the start of a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government says it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following separate but similar timetables, which means that some of the restrictions eased on Monday in England will remain in place a while longer in those places.

Lockdowns of one form or another have become so commonplace around the world that it can be hard to recall a time when they did not exist. The word began entering the popular lexicon in the weeks and months after the virus first emerged in China and authorities there moved aggressively to restrict the movement of its citizens.

Images from the ghostly streets of Wuhan riveted the world’s attention, and it soon became clear that the virus respected no national borders. But there was debate over whether Western democracies could — or should — resort to the extreme measures taken by Beijing.

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

And so lockdowns became a way of life.

People gather at the Borough Market in London on Monday, April 12, 2021, as the country emerges from a COVID-19 lockdown. (Andrew Testa/The New York Times)

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 about 4 billion people — half of humanity — living under some form of stay-at-home order.

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

Although it is difficult to compare lockdowns, researchers at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford have developed a system ranking their stringency. They found that Britain had 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.

At the height of the epidemic in January, Britain was averaging almost 60,000 new coronavirus infections and more than 1,200 COVID-19 deaths each day. In the past week, the daily averages were about 2,500 cases and 36 fatalities.

On Monday, as Britons flocked to stores and restaurants, there was widespread hope that after so many false dawns, there will be no going back. The return of the pub only enhanced that optimism.

It is hard to find a year quite like the last one for one of Britain’s most cherished institutions. Through plagues and fires, wars and depressions, the nation’s pubs largely stayed open, and when they were first shut down last year, even the prime minister sounded shaken.

“I do accept that what we’re doing is extraordinary,” Johnson said in March last year. “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of freeborn people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.”

Days earlier, Johnson’s recommendation that the public voluntarily stay away from pubs and other social venues was not universally well received. His own father said: “Of course I’ll go to a pub if I need to go to a pub.”

It was not just pubs that suffered under lockdown. Retail stores, too, struggled to survive.

The flagship store of British retailer Topshop on Oxford Circus, once a destination for fashion-hungry young adults, permanently shut its doors after its parent company filed for bankruptcy last year. And plywood boards now cover the front of Debenhams, another retail chain that foundered during the pandemic.

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 now, those stores that have survived are hoping for a heyday, after the worst recession in decades.

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% of Britain’s gross domestic product.

Plastered in big letters on the shop front of John Lewis, a British department store, there was an invitation coupled with a fingers-crossed prediction: “Come on in London, brighter days are coming.”

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