It was a scene I’d only expect to see – and have only ever seen – in the wee small hours of the morning heading home from a night’s clubbing…
Desolate streets. Tourist attractions closed. Pubs, restaurants, boutiques and department stores locked and bolted, some even boarded up. Eerily quiet tube platforms. Empty market places, hazard tape wrapped around park benches and outdoor seating.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it was the end of the world if it wasn’t for the buses, delivery drivers and black cabs poodling along the roads, the occasional sound of banging scaffolding coming from above and the drills of the maintenance workers digging up the streets.
But this wasn’t the apocalypse or even the hours before a city starts to wake up. No, this was two o’clock in the afternoon. In the heart of England’s capital city. A month before Christmas.
And while it wasn’t exactly 28 Days Later, the crippling of my vibrant, noisy, bustling city has been at the hands of a nasty little virus. And one that could threaten the livelihood and the future of this city for a few more months yet.
Fed up with being cooped up in the house and having exhausted all my local walking routes, I decided to get on the tube and head into town to be a tourist for the day.
I walked from Green Park to Buckingham Palace, up the Mall, through Horseguards Parade, across Trafalgar Square, up the Strand, through Covent Garden, across Leicester Square, through Soho and up Tottenham Court Road before my aching calves insisted I get the tube home.
Usually at this time of year, the streets are bustling with winter tourists, families out lunching and shopping, commuters dashing about and pubs and restaurants buzzing with pre-Christmas get-togethers.
In some sense it was rather pleasant to have some space and stroll around the empty streets in the winter sunshine without avoiding walking into people lost in their phones, or big families taking up the entire pavements, or having that sinking feeling coming up the stairs of the Underground straight into a wall of people.
It was the same feeling I had eight months ago when the country was first plunged into lockdown on March 23rd.
I walked my local streets and headed into town to take photos and document this unprecedented moment in history, while joking to myself that having the streets to myself was rather heavenly.
Lockdown lasted just over three months but during that time we were treated to a gloriously warm and sunny spring which helped with everyone’s mood. There was also light at the end of the tunnel – or so it seemed – when restrictions were lifted in July and the pubs, cinemas, some small theatres, gyms, non-essential shops and public services reopened.
As we sat in the pub and sipped our first pint since March, it felt like we’d made it over a huge hurdle, and that by the end of the summer we might have a way out of this and be able to start getting back to normal and plan to see family for Christmas.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. Cases rose and as autumn hit, so did a second lockdown, which came into effect on November 5th. This time it felt a lot worse and seeing the streets still empty and crying out for life made it really seem like all hope was lost.
Then we had news of not one, but two vaccines, and we all waited with bated breath to see how big a game-changer they could be.
But although that was a glimmer of positive news, there was still a way to go and on Monday, despite announcing that lockdown would be lifted, the government also told us we’d be put back into tiers again in an attempt to get through winter. Basically lockdown under another name.
Yesterday was the big reveal and us Londoners found out that when lockdown 2 ends on December 2nd, we’ll be put into Tier 2, which isn’t horrific, but still could leave our hospitality industry fighting for survival.
We had all hoped for Tier 1. Of course, after the end of lockdown was confirmed, we had hoped for no tiers at all. But Tier 1 would have given us a glimmer of hope.
But this virus continues to spread and while it might not be as virulent as its first mutation, until the vaccines start to be administered, life has to stay on hold for a little bit longer.
I hope not too much longer, though. Roll on spring, a season that has never felt more meaningful in terms of new life, fresh starts, new beginnings, renewal.
But it has also never felt more far away either.
This grand old dame of a city has faced and fought a huge and destructive fire, the bubonic plague, two world wars and several horrific terrorist attacks.
So let’s hope that come the New Year, vaccines will be approved and administered and we can finally start to open up this great country once again, particularly its wonderful capital city.
Because I fear that one more lockdown would be the final nail in her coffin. Despite her strength and resilience, she still needs her people and the millions of visitors supporting and funding and enjoying our world-famous tourist attractions and world-envied hospitality industry.
Because if they fail to thrive, then I fear, so will she.
Photo credit: Georgina Littlejohn