Londoners could be seen dancing on the streets of Soho on the first night out since lockdown restrictions were lifted.
Revellers tasted the first signs of freedom as crowds gathered in the heart of the West End - but some warned of “very little” social distancing.
Police officers patrolled busy areas of the capital on Monday night as hordes of people enjoyed al-fresco dining and drinks after coronavirus restrictions eased in England.
The country’s shops, hairdressers, pub beer gardens and pavement cafes reopened yesterday after months in lockdown.
In Soho, pedestrianised streets hosted thousands of revellers, with spontaneous bouts of clapping and dancing.
Journalist Matthew Thompson described Soho as having the atmosphere of a “decadent festival”.
Several West End streets were closed to traffic between 5pm-11pm to create outdoor seating areas as part of measures implemented by Westminster City Council to support hospitality businesses.
Pictures and videos being shared online show people packed onto tables laden with food and drinks, while several dozen more stood on the streets cheering the first night of pubs and bars reopening.
Attila Kulcsar, a media communications manager, said the crowds felt “like a return to the ‘real’ Soho of the 1990s”.
“Tonight’s atmosphere beats the whole of last summer... it really is like how I imagine VE Day,” the 54-year-old said.
“It’s almost like watching Hogarth paintings come to life in 2021. There is a wonderfully raucous hysteria everywhere. It’s very celebratory.
“There is very little social distancing. A distinct sense that people feel the Covid restrictions have ended.
“There are lots of police around Soho as well as Covid Marshalls, but there is no word from them about social distancing... if anything they seem to be joining in the festivities.”
Westminster City Council said it was aware of “isolated incidents of crowding” and that it was working with businesses to ensure they are operating “responsibly and safely in line with guidance”.
A council spokesperson said: “We are pleased that visitors can return to the city and enjoy the shops and outdoor hospitality safely.
“We have implemented a range of measures across Westminster to enable social distancing, including additional footway space and barriers.
“We also have Covid Marshalls and city inspectors working across the city to help businesses support accessibility, social distancing and to respond to any issues.”
Earlier in the day, shoppers hit the high streets as non essential stores reopened once more, while indoor gyms, swimming pools, nail salons and zoos also welcomed customers back.
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, described “a joyous day” but warned people should remain cautious.
He said: “The current reduction in cases and hospitalisations is not only due to the success of the vaccine rollout but also the impact of lockdown in preventing virus spread.
“So while taking the opportunity to enjoy shopping and outside hospitality, we must remain cautious - the virus is still out there and very infectious.
“We can’t ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world - every other day new variants are being reported and infection is rife.”
Indeed, retail analysts Springboard said that footfall across all retail destinations in the UK was up 146 per cent by 5pm on Monday compared to the same time a week ago.
While London’s main shopping streets saw around 44 per cent of the pre-pandemic level of April visitors, slightly up on expectations.
However, Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End Company which represents 600 businesses on Oxford Street, Bond Street, Regent Street and in Mayfair warned that “until international shoppers return the West End businesses will continue to need extra government support”.
Despite the relaxation in lockdown rules, social mixing indoors remains heavily restricted, with around two in five adults yet to receive their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and the vast majority yet to get both.
The need for continued vigilance was underlined by former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King, who highlighted a surge in cases in Chile despite a successful vaccination campaign.
“Chile is a country where the rate of vaccination amongst the population was third highest in the world, they were ahead of us in terms of the number of people who have had the vaccine, and they’re suddenly now into a third wave", he said.
Meanwhile, dozens of people in parts of south London are being made to isolate after contracting the South African Covid-19 variant, prompting a surge in testing in the area.
Some 44 confirmed cases have been found predominantly in the Wandsworth and Lambeth boroughs, with a further 30 probable cases of the South African variant identified, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
People aged 11 and over who live, work or travel through those areas are being urged to take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, on top of using twice-weekly rapid testing.
The DHSC said it is the “largest surge testing operation to date” aimed at suppressing any possible new cases of the variant, with positive results from PCR testing to be sent for genomic sequencing at specialist labs.