11 Apr Opening up after the lockdown: Does 12 April mark the long road back? | UK News
“Hello London” says the brightly optimistic 12-foot yellow sign on the piazza in Covent Garden.
Workmen add finishing touches to the paint as lorries arrive with goods for shops, beer barrels, a case load of tonic is wheeled across the cobbles. After being desolate for so long – the heart of London is getting ready to put on a show.
Everyone hopes 12 April will mark the beginning of the recovery. Covent Garden is gearing up for when restaurants can serve food outside and non-essential shops reopen.
By Monday the famous former flower market will have 800 alfresco restaurant seats, outdoor heaters and large umbrellas, waiters, fine food, alcohol and, they hope, lots of punters.
But are Londoners going to flock down? Or have they become too accustomed now to Deliveroo and Amazon?
Director of Covent Garden Michelle McGrath said: “Covent Garden has been around for 500 years we’re very confident we will be around for a very long time.
“I think both of those things can coexist and every time we’ve had a lockdown and we’ve had an easing of lockdown what we’ve seen is restaurants full, shops full, queues to get in, people connecting with each other on a human level – but also here to experience the best of London.”
For many the reality of the pandemic hit home with the images of central London emptying out just before the first lockdown in March 2020.
How could the bustle of 44 million visitors a year to Covent Garden just vanish? Back then, traders at Jubilee Market said they hoped it would be a brief shutdown. They worried about feeding their families and paying the bills.
But the covered market, while being allowed to reopen on the 12th, won’t yet.
Trader Andy Graham, 65, who has worked on the stalls since 1978, said last summer they didn’t have enough business to make it worthwhile.
“When we did come back, the market was desolate, the West End was desolate,” he said.
“There were no foreign tourists and the government was saying ‘don’t come to the centre’.
“Now, we’re entitled to reopen, but there are no museums to go to, there are no theatres to go to. There is no point me opening my business until there’s a reasonable footfall.”
Over the course of 2020 the valuation of the Covent Garden estate plunged by a quarter.
The landlord, Capco, had to restructure leases and waive rent for struggling tenants.
Some cafes have continued to serve take out, but the high-end shops, save the Apple Store, have been locked up.
In Jubilee Market only one man has kept going: florist Melvin Taylor, 66, began trading shrubs to become a garden centre.
“I do miss the Opera House,” he said. “It was huge for business. And the theatres and the hotels. And the office workers, and the tourists. The Waldorf and The Savoy, they’re not opening until 17 May. So, a lot won’t open until then.
“I think the recovery will take a lot longer than people realise, especially in the centre of London. Look at the streets here – it’s empty. The only people walking around are traffic wardens.”
More than anywhere, Covent Garden is a place where time has stood still, where livelihoods were put on hold, but now the first buzz is returning and you can just start to feel it – London is coming back to life.
But it’s a slow, phased, uncertain revival.
The “Hello London” sign glistens in the sunshine, but the ecosystem of London’s tourist industry thrives on something that is still missing and it will remain absent for some time yet. Nothing will be as it was until the sign can read “Hello World.”