The beginning of the end of Britain’s lockdown — one of the longest and most stringent in the world — came with a pint at a pub.
Just past the stroke of midnight Monday, a few select establishments in England served their first drinks since being forced to close in January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns was imposed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Later in the morning, thousands of gyms, salons and retail stores opened their doors for the first time in months, bringing a frisson of life to streets long frozen in a state of suspended animation.
Thousands more pubs resumed business at noon. Friends reunited, families shared a meal at an outdoor cafe together for the first time in months, and as Britons basked in the late afternoon sun, the morning chill seemed to fade, replaced by a collective smile and sigh of relief.
“It’s like being out of prison,” said Kate Asani. She and two friends, Maria Ramsakova and Dezlin Vergotine, sat at a small table in the back garden of the Carlton Tavern in the Kilburn area of London, basking in each other’s company as much as the sunshine.
After months of isolation, she wasn’t quite sure she remembered how to be with others. “I was so nervous on the train here,” she said. “What do I wear? What do I say? It’s been so long.”
With the return of one of Britain’s most cherished institutions — even if pubs were limited to outdoor service — the country took its first major step in a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government has said that it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following separate but similar timetables, under which some restrictions that eased on Monday in England will remain in place a while longer.
The moment in England was greeted with an enthusiasm born of more than a year of deprivation — as the once unimaginable notion of conscripting to government decree has become a way of life.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a major step forward in our road map to freedom.”
In the first weeks of the global health crisis — when the World Health Organization was still debating whether to call the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — a new word entered the popular lexicon.
Lockdown in English. Le confinement in French. El confinamiento in Spanish. But first came fengcheng in China, literally meaning to lock down a city.
At the time, as images from ghostly streets of Wuhan, China, started to grab the world’s attention and it became clear that the virus respected no national borders, there was a debate about whether Western democracies could — or should — resort to such extreme measures.
As hospitals struggled to deal with a flood of patients and death tolls soared, the debate was overtaken by the reality that traditional methods of infectious disease control, like testing and contact tracing, had failed.
Britain, which held out longer than many of its European neighbors, entered its first national lockdown on March 26, 2020.
Since then, lockdown has come to mean many things to many people — dictated as often by individual circumstance and risk assessment as government decree.
While no country matched China’s draconian measures, liberal democracies have been engaged in a yearlong effort to balance economic, political and public health concerns.
Last spring, that meant that much of the world looked alike, with about 4 billion people — half of humanity — living under some form of stay-at-home order.
A year later, national approaches to the virus vary wildly. And no region has relied on lockdowns to the extent Europe has.
Although it is difficult to compare lockdowns, researchers at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government have developed a system ranking the rules’ stringency. They found that Britain has spent 175 days at its “maximum stringency level.”
“In this sense, we can say that the U.K. is globally unique in spending the longest period of time at a very high level of stringency,” said Thomas Hale, an associate professor of global public policy at Oxford.
Throughout the pandemic, it has been hard to judge how long good news might last. But for now, the relief was palpable.
Even the winter chill Monday morning could not keep people inside. After so many false dawns, there was a widespread hope that, this time, there would be no going back.