lmost a million pub and restaurant staff came back from furlough today as Britons celebrated the return of indoor drinking, dining and entertainment.
“Today is the day. It’s time to get back to the things we love,” beamed Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden as the heart of the capital city throbbed back to life.
Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton said he was “absolutely elated” to be reopening his London bars and restaurants. He added: “Bookings are very strong. A lot are almost fully booked out for the next three to four weeks.”
Kate Nicholls, of UK Hospitality, said bookings were “holding up strongly” particularly for fine dining, despite a “knock” in confidence from Friday’s government warnings about the spread of the Indian variant of coronavirus.
“We are reopening around 52,000 additional venues this week and bringing just under a million staff back from furlough,” she said, adding that it had been “an emotional roller-coaster but today is the beginning of the end”. City experts said the unlocking would unleash a rush of spending. Simon French, chief economist at brokers Panmure Gordon, said it would put London’s economy on track to grow by around £6 billion during the second quarter of the year, although that will still leave it around £7 billion smaller than before the pandemic.
He added: “For many proprietors now begins a summer sprint to boost cash reserves by the time furlough gets withdrawn, business rates restart and rent arrears fall due. It would be no exaggeration to say the viability of many operators to make it through next winter hinges on bustling trade over the coming months.”
The Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square opened at midnight. Chief executive Simon Thomas said: “It was truly extraordinary. After a culmination of 420 days of closure or curfew there were crowds queuing outside the Hippodrome. It was a true signal that the West End is back in business.”
David Moore, of Michelin-star restaurant Pied a Terre in Fitzrovia, said: “We are absolutely thrilled. The bookings are there, we are nicely full. It’s five months since we have been open so there is a real excitement. There is a real energy around, like it’s a new launch.”
In key developments on the day the doors opened again to indoor fun:
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said he is “very confident” that the next and final stage of reopening, on June 21, will go ahead on time, despite concern about the new Covid variant being up to 50 per cent more transmissible. “We can’t guarantee for reopening on the 21st of June,” he cautioned. “I’m just very confident, given the data I’ve seen.”
Drinkers were asked by the Government to avoid excessive consumption for fear of letting social distancing slip. “It is fairly clear to me in terms of common sense that what you can do is socialise in a normal way but obviously we advise ordinarily against excessive drinking, endangering people, getting too many large groups together if that can be avoided,” Mr Kwarteng appealed on LBC.
Hugging, which is also allowed from today, was described as a “high-risk procedure” by a top scientist. Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), told BBC Breakfast: “Some of us are quite happy not to be hugging and kissing many times on the cheek. This is a high-risk procedure, I would say in medical terms and I would certainly not be embracing people closely. I think you can greet people perfectly well at a distance with a smile and a kind word. I think we must be extremely cautious.”
Holidaymakers set off from UK airports to the sun with the end of the ban on leisure travel abroad — with some going to resorts in “amber” countries despite the requirement to quarantine at home. “For me, I work from home at the moment so it’s neither here nor there,” said Nathan Priestley, 31, from Wokingham in Berkshire, who set off for Corfu with five friends.
Recruitment website Reed said it had experienced a 156 per cent increase in jobs posted in the capital during the first 10 days of May compared with the same period last year, and a 189 per cent jump in hospitality and catering vacancies, the fastest-growing sector.
London’s health chief Kevin Fenton warned that a spike in the Indian variant could “quickly set us back”. He urged: “We must all be mindful that the virus, including variant cases, are still present in London. Lots of people have not yet had the vaccine and a spike in cases, particularly of the variant of concern first identified in India which appears to be more transmissible, could quickly set us back.”
An appeal to people to take up the vaccine was stepped up after evidence that those who refused were more likely to fall victim to the Indian variant. “The biggest risk comes from, if there are large numbers of older people who are unvaccinated,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers. “The real issue is that we know that there are communities of people who haven’t been vaccinated and who are eligible — and we know there’s a link for example to deprivation, we know there’s a link to ethnicity.”
Nicola Sturgeon admitted feeling “a wee bit emotional” as Scotland and also Wales joined England in relaxing restrictions, although some areas including Glasgow City remain in higher levels of alert.
Boris Johnson issued a video message this morning spelling out the new freedoms along with an appeal to the public to exercise care and caution. In a tour of media studios, Mr Kwarteng spelled out the message repeatedly. He told LBC: “We’ve got to exercise some caution because if people get too carried away, we could jeopardise the ability to reopen on June 21.”
He told Sky News there was confidence that vaccination prevents the Indian variant causing serious illness. “But of course we can’t definitely prove anything until we’ve eased up and we see what the actual data shows,” he said.
“But there is nothing in the evidence now that we’ve seen that suggests that the vaccine isn’t very effective against the Indian variant.”
Chef Mr Atherton said: “We are excited because we’re not made to be packing food boxes or running Zoom cooking classes. We are built to be in the kitchen.”
Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said: “I think the general feeling is the buzz is back in central London. However, the price of retaining these new freedoms is keeping to the rules.”