Covid lockdown eases: England 'buzzing' after first night out in 97 days

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media captionLockdown lifting in Liverpool: 'Today feels like New Year's Day'

"Exciting", "slightly scary" and "an absolute riot" were some of the verdicts from drinkers enjoying their first night out in months as England reopened outdoor hospitality.

In London's Soho, locals welcomed seeing the West End "buzzing again" with life.

The streets were packed, with roads closed to give more space for al fresco drinking and dining.

In Newcastle, people said it was "worth it" to brave freezing pub terraces.

Outdoor drinking and dining resumed on Monday for the first time since England's lockdown began on 5 January - although for millions of people who lived under tier 4 restrictions in December, the wait had been even longer.

Shops, hairdressers, gyms and zoos were among the other businesses reopening in England, while Northern Ireland's "stay-at-home" order was lifted and some rules were eased in Scotland and Wales.

Despite flurries of snow in parts of the country, people flocked to pubs and restaurants to celebrate the return of some of their freedoms.

"It's full everywhere, It feels like a celebration, basically," one drinker told the BBC.

"Honestly it feels so good, it feels like we're out of prison. We're celebrating a birthday, so it's the best gift, I guess," said another.

A woman, who has lived in Soho for 15 years, said it was "amazing, it's lovely just to see people out, to have life around us, I've missed it so much".

"Just to see it buzzing again is beautiful and to see all the local businesses come alive again, it's great," she said.

Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, said the atmosphere was "like a return to the 'real' Soho of the 1990s" - or alternatively "like how I imagine VE Day", referring to the scenes of jubilation at the end of World War Two.

"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," he said.

Police and Covid marshalls were present, he said, but they were not intervening to try to enforce social distancing.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionDrinkers in Soho said the atmosphere was celebratory
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe pints kept coming late into the night
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn the Northern Quarter of central Manchester, groups enjoyed drinks as the night drew in

Westminster Council said it was aware of "isolated incidents of crowding" but said it had been working with businesses to help them operate safely, including having Covid marshalls offering support with social distancing.

Some described a few anxious moments at the prospect of crowded places for the first time in months. "But as soon as you sit down to have a beer, it's an absolute riot," said one man. "It's quite overwhelming, but in a good way," added his companion.

Many people said they welcomed the crowds and were not concerned about the risk of Covid spreading. Some said they had already been vaccinated, while one group said they had taken rapid lateral flow tests beforehand as a precaution and that being outside reduced the risk of infection.

Professor Adam Finn, a paediatrician on the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation, said people should continue to practise social distancing despite the success of the vaccine programme.

Asked on BBC Breakfast whether he would go to a beer garden in the current circumstances, he said: "If I did, 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. It's not like it's all over, we can all go back to normal."

image copyrightEPA
image captionPolice patrolled the streets in Soho

Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had urged people to "continue to behave responsibly" as the restrictions were eased.

Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist and medical oncologist, said the drop in infections in the UK was not only due to the progress in vaccinations, but also because of lockdown restrictions.

That meant it was important to remain cautious, even on a "joyous day" like this, he said.

"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," he said.

In Newcastle-upon-Tyne, some revellers shrugged off the "Arctic" temperatures. "To be honest, it's quite nice, it's quite cosy," said one man sitting in a sheltered terrace. "We're from the north so we're used to it."

A group of women said they had layered up to brave the elements. "It was really snowing earlier. But I think it's worth it," one said.

Robby Scott, managing director of Babucho, an Italian restaurant and bar, said: "It just sums up 2020 and 2021 that we finally get to open our doors for outdoor dining and we get an Arctic storm. But I don't think people would care at the moment."

But some business owners warned that they cannot survive on the takings from outdoor hospitality alone.

Jeremy Joseph, owner of G-A-Y in Soho, said the reopening was "bittersweet" as even with the streets crowded, they could only operate at just over 10% of their usual indoor capacity.

"It's not making money, all we are doing is reducing our losses," he told the BBC.

He said the nightclub had lost about £1.3m in the pandemic and bills were "continually coming in".

"Outside hospitality is not going to cover it," he said, adding that the recovery would begin for him on 17 May, when indoor hospitality is expected to resume.

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