London’s £100 million Great Escape from lockdown as people flock back to the West End

Jonathan Prynn and Nicholas Cecil
·4-min read
Pubs and restaurants back open in London’s Soho (Jeremy Selwyn)
Pubs and restaurants back open in London’s Soho (Jeremy Selwyn)

Central London roared back to life with a £100 million “day one” spending spree in shops, restaurants and pubs after more than a year of “ghost town” desolation.

West End bosses said the first day after the easing of lockdown restrictions had unleashed the strongest reopening since the start of the pandemic and had “far exceeded expectations”.

Footfall was around 55 per cent of “normal” yesterday, one of the highest figures since the first lockdown began in March last year, beaten only by a handful of “no traffic” shopping days before Christmas.

Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents 600 businesses in Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street and Mayfair, said: “Shoppers appear to be feeling ever more confident as a result of the vaccination programme and this has delivered the strongest reopening day of the pandemic to date with many more shopping bags in evidence.

“We’ve still a long way to go before we’re fully back on our feet and West End businesses will continue to need extra government support until international visitors return in force.”

Analysis by the Centre for Retail Research commissioned by discount website Vouchercodes suggested spending of just under £100 million yesterday rising to nearly £150 million on Saturday. The return of shoppers to the West End came as:

However, there was concern about scenes of rowdy celebration in Soho last night with “social distancing” rules going largely unobserved. Pubs and restaurants were able to start serving customers outside for the first time since the capital went into Tier Three restrictions in mid-December.

Police patrolled busy areas as crowds flocked to Old Compton Street and neighbouring streets to enjoy al fresco dining and drinks.

Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, said the crowds felt “like a return to the ‘real’ Soho of the Nineties”.

The 54-year-old added: “Tonight’s atmosphere beats the whole of last summer... it really is like how I imagine VE Day. 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.”

Westminster City Council said it was aware of “isolated incidents of crowding” and that it was working with businesses to ensure they were operating “responsibly and safely in line with guidance”.

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A council spokesman said: “We have implemented a range of measures across Westminster to enable social distancing, including additional footway space and barriers. We also have Covid marshals and city inspectors working across the city to help businesses support accessibility, social distancing and to respond to any issues.”

However, relieved restaurateurs hailed an “extraordinary first day” when terraces and gardens were packed despite the occasional snow flurry in the morning.

Des Gunewardena, chief executive of fine dining group D&D London, said: “In the 21 restaurants we opened yesterday, we did well over double the revenues that we did on the equivalent day in 2019 even though we only had the terraces open.”

Steve Medway, place manager at Chelsea landlord and property firm Cadogan said: “Reopening yesterday had a fantastic atmosphere with queues outside many Chelsea stores including Zara, Peter Jones and toyshop Trotters on the King’s Road to Chanel and Hermes on Sloane Street.”

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