London’s Lockdown Is Easing But The City Is Still Incredibly Empty


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I’ve been seeing out the current pandemic in the suburbs just outside London but, until yesterday, I hadn’t been into the center of the city since a few weeks before we were locked down. With the UK’s lockdown rules easing, I had assumed that London had been getting back to its usual bustling self since most stores were allowed to reopen earlier this month, so I wasn’t prepared for the scenes that met me yesterday morning.

The keyboard on my Macbook has been getting worse and worse (a few keys refuse to respond unless pressed a number of times) and it finally got so bad that I was forced to book it for repairs at an Apple Store in central London.

I took a mid-morning train into the center of town and the train which would otherwise have been at least a third full with passengers was mostly deserted (people have been advised to avoid public transport if possible).

The train’s conductor was making sure that anyone who boarded was wearing a face covering and the trains carriages were full of notices reminding passengers to social distance as much as possible.

I arrived into London’s Waterloo station shortly after 11 am to be met by a series of signs reminding me to wear a face covering (I was)…

…and a concourse that I don’t ever remember seeing so empty.

The Apple Store I was visiting was on the north side of the river Thames (Waterloo Station is on the south side) so, rather than take an unnecessary Underground (subway) journey, I decided to walk and to use Hungerford Bridge to cross the river. The normally packed “Southbank” was deserted…

At 11:30 am on any day of the week (even in the middle of London’s famous downpours) Hungerford Bridge is usually heaving under the weight of Londoners and tourists, but today it was anything but.

As I made my way into the heart of what is normally one of the busiest cities in the world, it was hard to miss the hand sanitizing stations and the warning signs the local authorities have erected…

..and it was hard not to notice just how few people there were around.

This is Villers Street (adjacent to one of London’s bigger overground stations):

This is the Strand (one of London’s more major thoroughfares):

And this is London’s famous Covent Garden where, on most days, you usually have to fight your way through throngs of people if you want to get anywhere:

A lot of the shops in the area were open for business but on some streets there were more warning signs than people.

With no crowds to fight my way through I arrived at Apple’s Covent Garden store way too early for my appointment, so I decided to kill a bit of time by seeing what the areas around a few other famous London landmarks looked like.

Here’s Leicester square at a little past 11:30 am…

…and in case you think I’ve been selective in how I took my pictures, here’s a panoramic shot of the usually packed square:

Here’s the road linking Leicester Square with Piccadilly Circus…

And here’s Piccadilly Circus itself:

There are manned hand washing stations dotted around most of the main attractions…

…and a number of the roads around the very center of the city have been narrowed to give the walking public wider sidewalks and a better chance to socially distance:

But with restaurants still boarded up (they’ll start to reopen next week)…

…with famous stores like Fortnum & Mason deserted…

…and with some of London’s most famous landmarks hosting just a smattering of people…

…there’s currently no need for any special measures to help people stay apart.

By the time I got back to the Apple Store it was midday, Covent Garden was still mostly deserted…

…and there were just three people in line waiting to get in. There was a poster with a set of rules I was asked to read…

…and I had my temperature checked before I was allowed to join the line. I was inside the store within minutes where the staff and security people outnumbered the customers by more than 8:1.

After I finished up at the Apple Store and made my way back to Waterloo, the streets were still mostly empty…

…and I finally realized just what a monumental hit to our lives this pandemic has been.

I’ve been separated from everyone and everything outside of my small neighborhood for over 3 months, and even though I keep up with the news and see the images from around the world that the various channels broadcast, nothing has hit home the enormity of what we are living through as seeing London’s streets so deserted.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that these aren’t images of London in lockdown. These are images of London in the middle of the day and at a time when all shops are allowed to be open and where only restaurants, bars, gyms and places of entertainment still remain closed…and yet there’s hardly anyone around.

Some part of me thought that, once lockdown restrictions were eased, we’d see life getting back to a version of “normal” pretty quickly, and the images of hundreds of people waiting in line to get back into stores around the UK when the shops reopened (a few weeks ago) firmed up that belief…but that’s not what’s happening.

The crowds of people that went shopping on the first few days after the stores reopened appear to have dwindled, and we’re back to a reality where people are still working from home where possible and where people aren’t heading into the cities unless they have a very specific purpose. With the travel world still only taking its first stuttering steps on the road to recovery and with the UK currently imposing a truly idiotic quarantine on most visitors, we’re also seeing just how much of London’s hustle and bustle is down to visitors from abroad.

London’s empty streets aren’t only empty because Londoners aren’t heading out, they’re empty because the city’s visitors have all gone home…and who knows when they’ll be back?

4 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting, but not really my experience and I think it’s because we went to different areas. Obviously the areas around offices are going to be deserted because there’s nobody in the offices. So the City, the Strand, the major hotels are all going to be empty. But I recently had some business and went to Chelsea, Notting Hill, Kilburn, Kensington High Street, Golders Green and Bermondsey. All were busy – certainly not as busy as usual – and the traffic was at mid-August levels rather than June levels.

  2. Please don’t think that the quarantine of visitors from countries visiting England is inane. I live in the US, and we have a bunch of really stupid people here who decided that face masks are for sissies. They also believe in congregating in bars, congregating on the beaches, and just congregating anywhere. Consequently our epidemic rate has skyrocketed in the last 2 weeks mostly thanks to these people who are in the age group of 18 to 35. I love London. I’ve been there 25 times. And I hope to be back next year for a month. But I’m glad to see the people in London take the pandemic seriously. I wish everybody in the US did.

    • The problems with the UK quarantine are…
      a) it was introduced way too late
      b) it doesn’t make any allowances for countries where the virus is under control.
      c) it’s unenforceable
      d) its rules are truly idiotic and will not stop the spread of the pandemic

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