Revellers have tasted the first signs of freedom with a pint in London’s Soho, as crowds of people gathered in the heart of the West End – but some warned of “very little” social distancing.
Police officers patrolled busy areas in London on Monday night as hordes of people flocked to Old Compton Street and neighbouring areas to enjoy al-fresco dining and drinks after coronavirus restrictions eased in England.
Several West End streets were closed to traffic between 5pm and 11pm to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses.
Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables laden with food and drinks, while several dozen more stood on the streets cheering the first night of pubs and bars reopening.
Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, said the crowds felt “like a return to the ‘real’ Soho of the 1990s”.
“Tonight’s atmosphere beats the whole of last summer… it really is like how I imagine VE Day,” the 54-year-old told the PA news agency.
“It’s almost like watching Hogarth paintings come to life in 2021. There is a wonderfully raucous hysteria everywhere. It’s very celebratory.
“There is very little social distancing. A distinct sense that people feel the Covid restrictions have ended.
“There are lots of police around Soho as well as Covid marshals, but there is no word from them about social distancing… if anything they seem to be joining in the festivities.”
Westminster City Council said it was aware of “isolated incidents of crowding” and that it was working with businesses to ensure they are operating “responsibly and safely in line with guidance”.
A council spokesperson said: “We are pleased that visitors can return to the city and enjoy the shops and outdoor hospitality safely.
“We have implemented a range of measures across Westminster to enable social distancing, including additional footway space and barriers.
“We also have Covid marshals and city inspectors working across the city to help businesses support accessibility, social distancing and to respond to any issues.”
Earlier in the day, shoppers hit the high streets as non-essential stores reopened once more, while indoor gyms, swimming pools, nail salons and zoos also welcomed customers back.
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, described “a joyous day” but warned people should remain cautious.
He said: “The current reduction in cases and hospitalisations is not only due to the success of the vaccine rollout but also the impact of lockdown in preventing virus spread.
“So while taking the opportunity to enjoy shopping and outside hospitality, we must remain cautious – the virus is still out there and very infectious.
“We can’t ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world – every other day new variants are being reported and infection is rife.”