Arrests as revelers defy distancing rules after pubs reopen in England

Officers witnessed "happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, more angry drunks," said John Apter, chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales.
Image: TOPSHOT-BRITAIN-HEALTH-VIRUS-PUBS
A car tries to drive along a street filled with revelers drinking in the Soho area of London on Saturday night.JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP - Getty Images

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By Isobel van Hagen and Matteo Moschella

LONDON — Lockdown restrictions were eased, the pubs opened and crowds flocked onto the streets of English cities Saturday, many ignoring social distancing rules and prompting complaints from the police. A number of arrests were made.

John Apter, chair of the Police Federation for England and Wales, warned that it was "crystal clear" that drunk people cannot observe social distancing.

Apter, who was on patrol in Southampton, a city on England's south coast, wrote on Twitter that officers dealt with "anti-social behavior, naked men, possession of class 'A' drugs, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, more angry drunks."

In Brentwood, a small town east of London, moments after he urged people to "enjoy yourself" but to "behave," Special Inspector Steve Weaver tweeted that four people had been arrested.

"That didn't last long," he wrote.

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In what some of the U.K.'s tabloid press dubbed "Super Saturday" and British "Independence Day," some bars were forced to close early after having opened for the first time in three months after the coronavirus lockdown.

London's Metropolitan Police said that most of the public complied with social distancing guidelines but that some areas of the capital were "notably busy."

Images and videos taken in central London's Soho nightlife district showed packed streets with very few people wearing masks.

Mark Welford, 61, who runs Bloomsbury Flowers in nearby Covent Garden, walked over to Soho on Saturday afternoon to see what had gone "from zero to essentially normal activity" overnight.

Welford was initially happy to see the pubs back in action, he said in a phone interview. "But there was clearly no social distancing."

After seeing videos from later that evening, he was surprised to see people acting like "it was a normal Saturday night, pre-COVID."

Some did not feel comfortable with the unraveling scene and decided to leave.

"I had my mask on and went home. I did not feel comfortable being there. It felt like all the hard work of lockdown was thrown in the bin," Stephen Brian Lowe said in a private message on Twitter.

Low, 20, a real estate agent from Kingston-upon-Thames, recorded the scene of "absolute madness" in London late Saturday before heading home.

The large crowds raised concerns that the deadliest outbreak in Europe may spike again.

In the southern counties of Devon and Cornwall, police said they received more than 1,000 calls Saturday night, most of them linked to drinking-related disorder.

In the eastern county of Nottinghamshire, four people were arrested and several pubs decided to close because of alcohol-related anti-social behavior.

Pubs and restaurants had worked hard to get ready for the moment, spacing tables, putting some staff members behind plastic counters and registering customers upon arrival.

Even so, some pubs decided not to reopen at all Saturday night because of continued fears of a coronavirus outbreak. Leicester, a city in the middle of England, has even had its lockdown restrictions reimposed after a flare-up last week.

Owner Are Kjetil Kolltveit places markers for social distancing in front of the bar at the Chandos Arms pub in London on Wednesday.Frank Augstein / AP

While England embarked on its biggest lockdown easing yet — hair salons, restaurants and museums also reopened — many said it came too soon given still-high levels of coronavirus infection.

On Friday, Britain's chief medical adviser, Dr. Chris Whitty, said the pandemic "is a long way from gone" in the U.K., which has one of the highest death rates in the world.

More than 44,000 people had died from the virus as of Sunday, British health officials said.

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Elsewhere in Europe, in South Korea and in the U.S., the reopening of bars and restaurants is blamed for spikes in infections from patrons losing their inhibitions and abandoning social distancing among strangers.

Case numbers continue to grow around the world, as more than 11.2 million people globally had been infected as of Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University. With shortages of testing materials, the real number of cases is unknown.