Parts of London and other cities, deserted during lockdown, sprang to life as people dressed up and came out for “Super Saturday” — the day England’s hospitality sector reopened for the first time since March.
Many of the social distancing rules drilled in by ministers at daily televised briefings appeared to go out the window in Soho, where groups of people meandered between pubs and restaurants without a facemask in sight.
The government is still technically limiting how many Britons from various households can meet at a time. But officials acknowledge that the latest rules are only recommendations, and no one expects the police to start issuing fines.
Britain’s devolved structure means the pubs of Northern Ireland opened on Friday, while the ones in Wales and Scotland will have to wait for about 10 more days.
Government guidelines also insist on “minimum contact” between staff and customers, with table service only.
Drinkers are supposed to give contact details in case of an outbreak, although a group can designate a single person who can then relay any bad news to the rest.
The first nationwide closure of pubs since the Great Plague of 1665 had seen beer sales slump to the lowest level on record last month.
Yet while some pubs reopened the moment the restrictions were lifted shortly after dawn, others decided to sit out the first weekend.
In the centre of Newcastle, northeast England, where pubs are normally packed at weekends, just one in three intended to open, the local council said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on the public to use common sense. “My message is, let’s not blow this now, folks,” he told. Johnson’s handling of the entire crisis is coming under growing scrutiny, and his approval ratings have slumped in the past month. He has been forced to defend his decision to reopen pubs on a weekend instead of a Monday, when the crowds might have been smaller and owners better able to iron out any initial kinks.
The emergency services have also warned the public not to overdo it.