Britain took a giant leap back to normality on Monday by queueing for flatpack furniture. On the day lockdown began to ease in England with the re-opening of outdoor markets, car showrooms and the resumption of competitive sport, thousands of shoppers used it to full advantage by waiting up to four hours in the blazing sunshine to get inside an Ikea store.
Queues snaked for half a mile around car parks in the rush for such bestsellers as the Ektorp sofa or the Tokig salad spinner while police reported gridlock.
Monday was a landmark day for many. Competitive sport started in the morning with a 90-mile pigeon race from Kettering to Barnsley and a greyhound sprint at Perry Barr dog track in Birmingham, won by the history-making Im Sophie at 6/1. (The winning pigeon won’t be known until later on Tuesday.)
The first horse race held behind closed doors in Newcastle got underway in the afternoon and was followed by a snooker tournament in Milton Keynes at which the players had all tested negative for Covid-19.
Outdoor markets were back in business, including the famous Camden market in north London, while a stallholder in Yorkshire selling shoes was patiently disinfecting any pair tried on by customers before being put back on display. Meanwhile, motoring dealerships opened with a rush for cars from people desperately seeking an alternative to public transport.
The early evidence of green shoots in the High Street was encouraging with one study suggesting the number of shoppers out and about was up 36 per cent on last Monday. “It appears that even though only markets and car showrooms have opened today in addition to essential stores, shoppers are heading back into bricks and mortar destinations,” said Diane Wehrle, of analysts Springboard.
Buoyant trade was only the half of it. Families, who had obeyed the rules, were finally reunited after a lockdown relaxation that allowed groups of six people from two households to meet in open spaces including back gardens. About two million of the most vulnerable people, who had been shielding from the coronavirus since March, also got their first taste of outdoor freedom after a dramatic change in the regulations over the weekend.
“I’m just ecstatic,” said Rachel Kennard, 21, who finally got to see her parents for the first time on Monday at their home in Goytre in Wales. Her mother suffers from Huntington’s disease and Miss Kennard moved out to keep her safe. It has been a stressful ten weeks that included the death of her great grandmother - the funeral had to be live-streamed- while a close friend of her father’s died of Covid-19.
“I’ve missed them so much, and being an only child and having such a close relationship with both my mum and dad has made this so hard,” said Ms Kennard, “I honestly couldn’t wait, it feels like it’s been forever.”
Matt Forde, a comedian who hasn’t left his gardenless flat in London since lockdown due to severe asthma, said: “I didn’t expect to feel so emotional about it, but it’s a huge relief. I’m still aware that it’s dangerous and that I have to be careful, but the occasional walk outside is a huge difference to no walks at all. Just having sun on my face is amazing.”
Maisie Masterman, 21, a trainee teacher from the Wirral, gave her 80-something grandparents a 63rd wedding anniversary to remember by visiting them for the first time in almost three months, even though they live 15 minutes away. "They're two of my favourite people in the world and I'm so used to seeing them every Saturday afternoon. To finally see them again was like a little bit of normality," said Ms Masterman.
For many people though, it was enough to have Ikea open again. The retail giant opened 19 stores in England and Northern Ireland and its flatpack fans typically began lining up from 5.30am at many of its stores, more than four hours before the 10am official opening time. In Ashton-Under-Lyne, near Manchester, roads became gridlocked and it took an hour just to get into the car park and a further two hours in the queue. Erin Osborne, an American living in Manchester, didn’t mind the wait. “I know that we are not going to be going anywhere on holiday this summer, so it was something nice to do today,” she explained.
Miah Askir, from Ashton-under-Lyne, who had bought a Tussoy mattress cover, said: “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I arrived. A few people had been here since dawn and the queue was half a mile long. It is a boost for everybody in the country that Ikea is open again and, hopefully, I’ll sleep well tonight.”
At its stores in Nottingham and Wednesbury in the west Midlands, there was similar “orderly chaos”. Mary Byfield, 49, a mother-of-one from Great Bridge, West Mids,, said: "We've been redecorating during lockdown, but we're just missing some finishing touches. I've been waiting for this day for a long time.”
At the Nottingham branch Phillip Walker, 29, brought along his own camping chair to sit in as he queued. He said he was keen not just on the furnishings but Ikea’s famous meatballs too.
Car dealers were also doing brisk business. At a Subaru-Suzuki dealership in Ashton-under-Lyne, franchise manager Andrew Ogle said: “It is much busier than I anticipated. People have been coming into the showroom all day.” The showroom cars remain locked unless a customer shows specific interest while many dealerships have changed insurance policies to allow would-be buyers to test drive cars alone.
Howard Heaton, a market trader from Yorkshire, was busily spraying his shoes after any customer had tried on a pair. Out of lockdown, he is trading once again at Hawes market, North Yorkshire, and typically he would be heading to Barnard Castle market, County Durham, on Wednesday, where Dominic Cummings was infamously accused of breaking his own rules - but it remains closed for now.
“We’re going to sanitise the inside of the shoes and the outside of the shoes with a disinfectant spray after they've finished trying on,” he said. After a miserable three months, Mr Heaton, like every other retailer big and small, will be hoping to clean up.