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For first time since January, Covid-19 seems to be everywhere in London

Shows, restaurants and shops slacken off in game of snakes and ladders

A handful of customers were browsing in Hatchards and a few were coming out of Fortnum and Masons with their Eau de Nil carrier bags, but all of the smaller shops along that stretch of Piccadilly were empty. Around the corner on St James's, a short, stout gentleman was trying on a top hat in Lock's but Lobb's the bootmaker was deserted and Berry Bros wine merchants were unusually quiet for this time of year.

West End musicals that have been booked out into February now have seats available every night following a rush of cancellations but some of the biggest shows, including Hamilton, The Lion King and The Life of Pi have cancelled performances. London is subject to the mildest of coronavirus restrictions with neither masks nor vaccine passports needed to go into a pub or restaurant but the capital is shutting down a week before Christmas.

Some Conservative MPs have no doubt about who is to blame: chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who suggested at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday that people should scale back on Christmas plans and prioritise the gatherings that were most important to them.

"Perhaps the unelected Covid public health spokesperson should defer to what our ELECTED members of parliament and the prime minister have decided. I know it's difficult to remember but that's how democracy works. This is not a public health socialist state," Beaconsfield's Joy Morrissey tweeted on Thursday morning.


Morrissey, who is also parliamentary private secretary – or bag carrier – to justice secretary Dominic Raab, later deleted the tweet. But other Conservative MPs joined in the attack on Whitty, with Winchester's Steve Brine noting that no new government policy was announced at Wednesday's press conference.

‘Effective lockdown’

“Then Professor Chris Whitty answered a question from the BBC, and at a stroke, the chief medical officer changed Government policy and put this country – certainly hospitality, and Winchester’s hospitality bears this out from what I am hearing – into effective lockdown. May I ask – yes or no – whether what Professor Whitty said last night is now the policy of the government, namely, that we should socialise carefully? What in practical legal terms does that mean?” he said.

Whitty told the Commons health and social committee that chief medical officers have been giving advice to the public since 1850 and that he was giving the same advice as any of his predecessors would have.

“I don’t actually think that any minister is feeling I am treading on their toes on this one. This is my job,” he said.

Every day this week, someone I know has tested positive

In fact, London’s shutdown began days before Whitty’s press conference appearance and when I ran into my friend, Wafae, on Tuesday morning, she told me that all the Christmas parties booked at her restaurant had been cancelled, along with most regular bookings. She had trained her team and rostered enough of them for the restaurant’s busiest days all year and now they would be serving a half-empty restaurant, if they were lucky.

“The only good thing for me is that the other restaurants all around are closing on Saturday until January. But it’s not good because they’re my friends,” she said.

Testing positive

Mario from the Italian near her told me later that he was indeed planning to close a week before Christmas and some places had already closed because of staff contracting coronavirus. For the first time since January, the virus seems to be everywhere in London and, every day this week, someone I know has tested positive.

My friend James, already exhausted from his pre-Christmas social round, confessed the other day that he would like nothing better than to have to self-isolate for a week. But he has left it too late because catching coronavirus from now on will mean spending Christmas alone, and he is not ready for that.

This, rather than anything Whitty said on Wednesday, is why so many people are staying at home and avoiding crowded places over the next few days. And although Boris Johnson is too frightened of his own MPs to talk about further restrictions ahead, everyone is expecting a tightening after Christmas.

At the cafe on the corner where the cabbies meet, I ran into one I knew and asked him how things were going.

“It’s like snakes and ladders, isn’t it?” he said.

“We were climbing up a ladder the last few months it’s been so busy, now we’re sliding down a snake.”