People eating and drinking outdoors in busy Soho street in London
Londoners flocked to Soho last night to mark the easing of lockdown restrictions in the heart of the West End – but the celebratory images have divided opinion, with some warning of “very little” social distancing in place.
Police officers patrolled busy areas in the capital on Monday night as hordes of people descended on Old Compton Street and neighbouring areas to enjoy al-fresco dining and drinks after Covid curbs eased in England.
Several West End streets were closed to traffic between 5pm-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.
Videos such as this one below started doing the rounds, with Soho trending on Twitter as people were divided over the scenes.
Some were concerned about an apparent lack of social distancing:
Soho tonight - About as sensible as swinging knives while blindfolded... #LockdownLifting https://t.co/oE6XyK1rb4
— Marie-Ann Hates Brexit and Tories (@Marie-Ann Hates Brexit and Tories)
Watching the footage from Soho this evening.
It's like a trailer for Lockdown 4: Tokyo Drift. https://t.co/SOB0ai9cQe
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 Marshalls, but there is no word from them about social distancing… if anything they seem to be joining in the festivities.”
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 oflockdown 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.”
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said pub-goers should continue to take precautions against coronavirus even when outside enjoying beer gardens, an expert has said.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Prof Finn said: “The vaccines are only one part of the solution to the problem. People do need to continue to be careful and to avoid infecting each other.
“I certainly for one am going to continue to take a lot of care to avoid exposing myself to other people and to avoid exposing other people to me over the coming weeks and months.
“I’m going to wear a mask outside. I’m going to continue to use hand hygiene and I’m going to avoid close social contact.
“I think we all need to continue to do that otherwise there is a real risk that there will be another surge in cases and we’ll start seeing hospitalisations and deaths again.”
He added: “If I did (go to a beer garden) I would certainly avoid contact with other people.
“I think the risks of transmissions outside are relatively low but not if you start coming into close contact with people… if you cough or sing or really basically confront someone in the face.”
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 Marshalls 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.