First night of Proms sees London get into its post-pandemic groove

London Letter: Two weeks after ‘Freedom Day’ and there’s optimism in the air

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson at the Global Education Summit in London on Thursday. Despite his bonfire of coronavirus regulations, almost everyone continues to wear face masks on the Tube. Photograph:  Tolga Akmen/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson at the Global Education Summit in London on Thursday. Despite his bonfire of coronavirus regulations, almost everyone continues to wear face masks on the Tube. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

It’s a little later than usual, but one of the essential elements of summer life in London returns on Friday with the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Last year saw 14 concerts performed in an empty room, but this year’s 55 concerts over 44 days will see the hall return to its full capacity of more than 5,000.

Concertgoers will have to show evidence that they are fully vaccinated, have had coronavirus within the last six months or test negative with a lateral flow test. They will be encouraged to wear a face covering as a courtesy to others but are not obliged to do so.

Almost two weeks after so-called Freedom Day, when almost all legal coronavirus restrictions were dropped, London is starting to relax into something like pre-pandemic life. The new dispensation at first saw Londoners behave more anxiously than before, as coronavirus case numbers were rising and hundreds of thousands were self-isolating after being pinged by the NHS app as possible contacts of those infected.

The fact that Boris Johnson and some of his senior ministers were themselves self-isolating on Freedom Day did nothing to lift the mood, as parties were cancelled and workplaces shut down following outbreaks of infection. Health secretary Sajid Javid was among many who became infected with the virus despite being already fully vaccinated.

Drinking and gossiping

By the end of last week, as case numbers were falling, the mood began to lighten. The Westminster party season reached its climax with the Spectator summer party, which saw politicians and journalists continue drinking and gossiping long after darkness fell on the magazine’s garden overlooking St James’s Park.

Restaurants remain quiet, partly because the school holidays have seen many leave the capital for holidays elsewhere in Britain, but also because tourists and business travellers remain scarce

Confidence rose further this week as the fall in case numbers continued, nurturing the hope that Johnson’s gamble of dropping restrictions during the summer could pay off, although they ticked up again on Wednesday and Thursday. The galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum were busy, despite the fact that you still need to book a timed ticket to enter, mostly with Londoners returning to see old favourites or to catch up with special exhibitions that had been interrupted by the lockdown.

Restaurants remain quiet, partly because the school holidays have seen many leave the capital for holidays elsewhere in Britain, but also because tourists and business travellers remain scarce. Even before this week’s easing of quarantine rules for visitors from Europe and the United States, a trickle of tourists had returned.

 Near Horse Guards Parade on Tuesday I was asked for directions for the first time in almost two years when a man with two sorrowful-looking children stopped me. “We would like to see the queen’s soldiers,” he said.

I told him that two of them were sitting on horses just behind us but he might have to wait a while to see more. His children looked at me as if I had just cancelled their birthdays, but the encounter cheered me up as a harbinger of the familiar life returning.

Bonfire

Despite Johnson’s bonfire of coronavirus regulations, almost everyone continues to wear face masks on the Tube, in shops and moving around restaurants. And despite the torrential rain this week, most people still prefer to book tables outside.

The “pingdemic” which saw almost 700,000 people told by the NHS app to self-isolate last week, has put a brake on risky behaviour and serves almost as a soft lockdown that could slow the spread of the virus. And although some have deleted the app or ignore its instructions, most of those who downloaded it still have it and continue to follow its guidance.

Unlike Ireland, England has chosen not to vaccinate young teenagers, so the return to school at the end of August could yet see a surge in infections. Johnson and his ministers warn against premature optimism, and the rest of the world is still watching his epidemiological experiment with some scepticism.

Businesses are anxious about the imminent end of state support, rate freezes and the furlough scheme, and many shops and restaurants remain boarded up. But, as Westminster goes to sleep for the summer, London is feeling happier and more at ease than it has since early last year – and that’s enough for most of us for now.

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