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A London high street comes back to life as the UK reopens

As nonessential businesses reopen, DW talked to business owners and patrons in North London to see if this lockdown will really be the last.

Großbritannien, London | Wiedereröffnung der Pubs

Back to life: Londoners hope the lockdown days are over for good

Katrina says she woke up on Monday morning itching to get out of the house, "I shook my partner awake, and said let's go, let's go!" the 32-year-old artist tells me at Ricco's Cafe, a local coffee shop on Walthamstow High Street in North London.

It is 10 a.m. and today is the day the UK government is lifting the first restrictions on nonessential businesses after a third national lockdown. While indoor dining is still not permitted, outdoor dining is — and despite the chilly weather, Katrina and her partner Alex are eager to have a taste of normal life again.

"It is just nice to be able to do something besides go for a walk," says Alex, a caregiver, as he smiles and sips a cappuccino.

Though Alex has been working throughout the lockdown, he says the relaxed rules will make a difference in the places he is able to take the 90-year-old man he looks after.

"It is really important for his mental health," he says. "It is amazing how much doing something different can change your entire mood."

Three Londoners sit at a table and drink coffee on Walthamstow's High Street

Katrina (l), Alex (m) and their friend Roger (r) enjoy at coffee at Ricco's Cafe on Walthamstow's High Street

'I'm looking forward to getting my life together a bit'

Nearby, a line is starting to form outside a charity shop — another type of non-essential business reopening today.

"I'm hoping to find something to wear on job interviews," Effie, a 23-year-old from Sheffield tells me, mentioning that she lost her job as a waitress.

Hospitality has been one of the sectors hardest-hit by the coronavirus, with the trade body UK Hospitality estimating it shed more than 600,000 jobs over the past year.

"I'm really just looking forward to getting my life together a bit," Effie continued. "Get a job, get back to the gym — that sort of thing."

Watch video 01:14

UK announces road map to end COVID-19 lockdown

'We hope it is different now, with the vaccine'

Down the street at Dench Fitness Gym, which also reopens today, Amin Maruf is eager to welcome those who are ready to come back.

He says he hopes that was the last of the lockdowns: "We were always told it would be the last one," Maruf tells me, echoing a common complaint among business owners. Though the UK government assured the population the first lockdown would be the last, two more and a myriad of safety restrictions have come — making many Britons now cautious of being overly optimistic now.

"I tried to use the time wisely, to upgrade a lot of the equipment that we have downstairs," he continues, "but it has been a lot of money to invest."

Maruf has been able to survive by attracting a loyal clientele of local bodybuilders but many other business owners have not been so lucky.

"I'm hoping it is different, especially now that we have the vaccine," he continues.

Since approving both the BioNTech-Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines last December, the UK has managed to inoculate more than 50 percent of its population. This, coupled with strict lockdown measures, has led to a significant drop in coronavirus infections.

Watch video 00:52

UK virologist Julian Tang on considerations to limit access to AstraZeneca

'No money, no house, many problems'

For many people, like 39-year-old Singh, however, the damage will be lasting. He lost his job in retail during the lockdown, meaning he couldn't afford to pay his rent.

"I'm homeless now," he tells me as he waits in line at a local foodbank that prepares hot meals at lunchtime for those in need.

"Look, I have a 13 year old son, and we have to come here for our food," he says, shaking his head. "Lockdown means no house, no money, many problems."

While the UK government was eager to address the needs of its homeless population at the beginning of the pandemic, recent figures show that more than 70,000 households have been been turned out onto the street as a result of the pandemic.

"It's been hard, my grades have gone down a lot," Singh's son Kishar says when I ask him about school — the disruption caused by constantly switching between in-person and online classes has been difficult for many students but it has been even more challenging for poor and homeless students.

"I really want to be a professional boxer," he continues. "I'm hoping now that things are opening up, I can find somewhere to box."

Four friends in London enjoy a beer together on the first day that the UK lifts lockdown restrictions

Four friends — Jason, Alex, Kyle and Richard (from left) enjoy a beer on the first day the UK lifts lockdown restrictions

'I'm never going to take it for granted again'

I knew that my last stop had to be a pub — an institution that, for many Londoners, is the litmus test of whether or not life has truly gone back to normal.

While pubs will be limited to outdoor service and groups to no more than six people for the next five weeks, by 2 p.m. the sun had unexpectedly come out and the outdoor seating area of a small group of local restaurants and shops was buzzing with people enjoying the chance to socialize for the first time in months.

"We have been doing this over Zoom for the past six months," says Richard, a 30-year-old teacher who met up with four of his colleagues for a beer. "I'm never going to take it for granted again," he says with a laugh.

Between the three national lockdowns and the months of local restrictions, meeting friends outside of one's household — for instance at a local pub — has only been legal for four months out of the past year.

"We have been cooped up for so long that we have started to think of it as a privilege, a sort of special treat, to spend time with our friends," his friend Kyle tells me, "but actually it is our right."

Watch video 01:54

EU lags in numbers vaccinated against COVID-19

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