Britain’s lockdown — one of the longest and most stringent in the world — finally began drawing to an end.
For people across Europe, struggling with yet another wave of the pandemic and demoralized by a vaccine rollout that, outside of Britain, has been deeply troubled, this is hardly a time to rejoice.
And Britons — who have lost more than 150,000 people to the pandemic — know better than anyone that they are facing a wily adversary, a shape-shifter of a virus that spins off variants that can threaten medical advances with a few mutations.
But just past the stroke of midnight on Monday, a few select establishments in England served their first drinks since being forced to close in December and January, and more than a year after the first of three national lockdowns was imposed to limit the spread of the virus.
Later, 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. Friends reunited, and families shared a meal at outdoor cafes for the first time in months.
The weather may have been chilly — there were even some snow flurries — and pubs were limited to outdoor service. But the moment was embraced with an enthusiasm born of more than a year of on-and-off deprivation and uncertainty, one in which a once-unimaginable level of government decree became a way of life.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson called it “a major step forward in our road map to freedom.”
Monday was the start of a phased reopening that is scheduled to culminate on June 21, when the government says it hopes to lift almost all restrictions in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are following separate but similar timetables, which means that some of the restrictions eased on Monday in England will remain in place a while longer in those places.
Lockdowns of one form or another have become so commonplace around the world that it can be hard to recall a time when they did not exist. The word began entering the popular lexicon in the weeks and months after the virus first emerged in China and the authorities there moved aggressively to restrict the movement of its citizens.
While no country matched China’s draconian measures, liberal democracies have been engaged in a year-long effort to balance economic, political, and public health concerns. Last spring, that meant about four billion people — half of humanity — living under some form of stay-at-home order.
Britain, which held out longer than many of its European neighbors, entered its first national lockdown on March 26, 2020.
At the height of the epidemic in January, Britain was averaging almost 60,000 new coronavirus infections and more than 1,200 Covid-19 deaths each day. In the past week, the daily averages were about 2,500 cases and 36 fatalities.
On Monday, as Britons flocked to stores and restaurants, there was widespread hope that after so many false dawns, there will be no going back.