Despite a mammoth queue of socially distanced shoppers outside the local M&S food hall, the atmosphere in East Dulwich was subdued as residents awoke to tier 4 measures on Sunday morning.
With the independent shops and salons that line Lordship Lane in the affluent south-east London area closed for business, the buzz of last-minute Christmas dashes had been replaced by those picking up provisions for now-smaller celebrations.
Among the benefactors was Franklin’s farm shop, one of several essential businesses still allowing customers indoors to buy organic fruit and vegetables. But while trade was up, co-owner Tim Sheehan, 58, said he felt anxious about the new, more infectious strain of Covid-19.
“I’m worried about myself, about staff, about our customers,” Sheehan said, although he added he felt suspicious that the prime minister had decided to highlight its prevalence now, questioning whether it was an excuse to cover up the government’s failure in announcing the drastic new measures at short notice.
By midday, Sheehan had spoken to several regulars who would now be forced to spend Christmas alone. Meanwhile, at the business’s restaurant across the road, a cellar full of beer that had already been sitting going to waste after it was forced to close when tier 3 measures came into force just four days ago.
“I’ve given up on planning for the future,” he said, adding that the end of the Brexit transition period in 11 days was likely to see the business experience food shortages. “This is the most incompetent government I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Fraser Hamilton, a 35-year-old jeweller queueing outside Franklin’s to pick up ingredients for a quieter Christmas with his girlfriend, said he had preemptively cancelled his usual plans to visit his parents in north-west Scotland several weeks ago, when he believed ministers should also have admitted defeat.
“I think we all knew something like this was coming,” he said. “Getting on a train to head north felt like taking a swab of the entire country.”
However, there was little appetite for judgment in East Dulwich for those who did flee the capital on trains heading north on Saturday night – as seen in widely-shared footage of crowds at stations. Stephanie, 55, an academic in science, said she didn’t blame those who would otherwise be alone for reacting to the government’s “mixed messages”.
At the homeware boutique Roullier White, which is offering a click-and-collect-only service, the owner Michael Donovan, 52, echoed others’ frustration at what he saw as the government’s inability to warn the public sooner.
Donovan had ordered in a huge amount of stock for the Christmas period – after retailers were told they could stay open 24 hours a day in the run up – only to experience delivery delays amid the current chaos at UK ports.
“Next week we’ll be getting lots and lots of stock and we’ll not be open,” he said, adding that items, such as fragrances, did not sell as well without customers being able to try them first. “In the last four of five days before Christmas, they’re a huge part of my business.”
Among the minority unwilling to give the government short shrift was Kyle Muizelaar, 31, out for a walk with his wife Catherine, 33, after the couple had spent two weeks in isolation in the hope of visiting her parents. “I think that it’s a difficult decision that was taken by the government,” he said. “It takes a lot of guts to do it. I just think that maybe they could have done it sooner.”
Kate Herbert, 29, a personal assistant, was blunter in her conclusion. “This year is so shit anyway that it couldn’t really get any worse,” she said. Instead of envying parts of the country that will be legally allowed to mix on Christmas Day, she thought London’s Covid restrictions had been comparatively looser for the most part of the year. “We got away with it for a lot longer, probably longer than we should have.”