Traders and workers in Birmingham give cautious welcome to ‘freedom day’

·5-min read
A largely deserted New Street, in the heart of Birmingham city centre, as legal restrictions on masks were lifted on so-called freedom day in England (Matthew Cooper/PA)
A largely deserted New Street, in the heart of Birmingham city centre, as legal restrictions on masks were lifted on so-called freedom day in England (Matthew Cooper/PA)

Many workers and business owners in Birmingham gave a cautious welcome to England’s “freedom day” – with some expressing hope it could herald the start of an upturn in economic activity.

Leigh Paton, who operates Mr Bumbles hot potato and food van in Cherry Street, near the city’s St Philip’s Cathedral, said she was optimistic but trade levels were hardly better than when the city emerged from lockdown last summer.

Expressing optimism for the future while admitting that things remained uncertain, she said of so-called freedom day: “I am just so glad it’s finally arrived because it’s been a horrible, horrible stressful time.

“The anxiety we’ve all felt for 18 months, it feels like is going to go. I just can’t wait to get back to normal.

“Everybody just needs to get out there, have fun, see their friends, see their families and enjoy life. That’s what it’s all about.”

Street trader Leigh Paton, who said she couldn’t wait for business to return to normal. (Phil Barnett/PA)
Street trader Leigh Paton, who said she couldn’t wait for business to return to normal. (Phil Barnett/PA)

As streets in the city’s central shopping area remained relatively quiet, the long-standing business owner conceded that trading levels are still “very, very down” compared to normal levels – with many of the core customer base of office workers entering the city once a week or even once a fortnight.

She told the PA news agency: “There aren’t very many of them in and generally they’ve been told by their businesses, by their bosess, that they can come in gradually.

“There are hundreds of thousands of office workers in Birmingham so if enough come back, we will be fine.

“If enough don’t come back, we’re not fine and that’s the worry.

“From a business point of view, it’s horrible. I’m kind of tentative – I’m hoping things will be good because I’m an optimist and I’m hoping that things will be better today but I don’t think it’s very likely because the roads were very quiet this morning and the weather probably keeps a lot of officer workers away.

“We’ve struggled like anything all the way through. I don’t know whether we’ll be able to keep going or not. We’ve just got to wait and see.

“We reopened on July 4th last year and it’s not got any better, hardly any better than it was then. And that’s the reality of it.”

I'm still wearing mine (face mask) like I do normally whenever I go in shops and things. We've got to be careful for now

A passing events sector worker, who did not give his full name, said the easing of restrictions made him feel better after around 16 months of restrictions.

He said: “I still have to wear masks on site anyway because of my job.

“Yeah, I suppose it feels good. In the events industry, it’s been very quiet, to be honest. Obviously we were the first to shut down and we are the last to start back up.

“It’s been very difficult but we’ve managed to get through. We are starting to pick up now.”

Senior care worker Samuel Evans said of the lifting of restrictions: “I actually think it’s good, to be honest – I am not going to lie, I’m sick of it.

“Being able to be out free – I think it’s good.

“I’ve worked through it. I’m on the frontline. This is the first time I’ve had any time off (since the first lockdown) and I’m on annual leave.

“I’m going on holiday this week to Scotland and it’s nice to be able to travel.”

Security alarm and CCTV installer Nigel Rooke said the period since March 2020 had been “testing” but things were starting to pick up.

Mr Rooke said: “You’ve got to open up eventually, haven’t you. That’s my opinion on it. As long as people are sensible and still take their masks around, then why not?

“I’m still wearing mine like I do normally whenever I go in shops and things. We’ve got to be careful for now.

Work has been on and off, it’s starting to pick up now. You haven’t really been able to go anywhere and do anything, so it’s been testing but… getting through it is all we can do.”

Pensioner David Bradbury sounded a note of warning for the future, cautioning that people still needed to protect themselves and others by wearing masks in busy places and on public transport.

Speaking on a largely empty pedestrian area near Birmingham New Street station, the 70-year-old said “freedom day” would make no difference to him, adding: “I am still wearing my mask and will continue to do so.

“I think masks should be kept in, especially with the winter coming up. I think the reason why the flu epidemic didn’t take off last year was because everyone was wearing masks.

“I feel sorry for the youngsters because they’ve had 18 months of their lives disrupted.”

Predicting that the pandemic could last another two or three years, he added: “It’s not asking a lot (for people to wear a mask in a shop) and as soon as you come out you can take it off.

“This isn’t going away and anyone who thinks it is, is kidding themselves.”

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