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How shoppers in Maidstone responded to Freedom Day

Freedom Day – it sounds like it ought to be a Will Smith movie.

In fact, it's the name given by the government to today's official ending of all Covid restrictions, so reporter Alan Smith ventured out onto the streets of Maidstone to see what had changed.

Although rules remain on foreign travel, in England it is no longer a legal requirement to wear a mask, to observe social distancing, or for shops and businesses, cinemas, theatres or nightclubs to restrict the number of customers on their premises.

But with the number of recorded Covid infections still rising daily and with an increasing number of firms reporting staff shortages affecting production, we wondered to what degree people in Maidstone would be prepared to abandon the habits we've so painfully acquired over the last 16 months since the start of the first lockdown in March, 2020.

I set out to find out, calling first at Maidstone West Station.

It was a slightly surprising beginning, seeing as how a great many medical experts are urging travellers still to act responsibly and stick to wearing masks on public transport.

Of the 23 people who got on the 9.25am service to Tonbridge, 18 were not wearing masks.

Maidstone West Station during lockdown in March 2020
Maidstone West Station during lockdown in March 2020
Maidstone West Station on Freedom Day - not much busier!
Maidstone West Station on Freedom Day - not much busier!

On the opposite platform, when the 9.33am service to Strood pulled in, 10 of the 13 passengers who stepped off were not wearing masks.

The station was not what you would call busy.

Moving on to the nearby Lidl in the Broadway Shopping Centre, over a 20-minute period, I observed 55 customers exit the store wearing masks and 40 with out. So the masks have it.

But the proportions were not sufficient for one customer, Patricia Day, 67, from Charles Street, Maidstone.

She said: "It worries me. A lot of people are not wearing masks. I've been double vaccinated but I have a compromised immune system.

Patricia Day: Worried
Patricia Day: Worried

"I always wear my mask – even if I'm going round the market."

She said she had asked some customers if they wouldn't mind putting a mask on. She said: "They just tutted and walked away."

However, she said she had felt much safer on a visit earlier that morning to The Vine Medical Centre: "Everyone was wearing a mask – patients and staff."

In Fremlin Walk, the one-way markers are still etched out on the floor but security staff confirmed they were no longer enforcing them.

At House of Fraser, over a 20-minute period, 48 people exited the store wearing a mask, while 12 went mask-less.

At House of Fraser the ratio of mask-wearers to non-wearers was 4:1
At House of Fraser the ratio of mask-wearers to non-wearers was 4:1

In King Street, I thought I could interview a no-masker. Martin Pestridge was standing outside Costa Coffee waiting for a friend. He had not been wearing a mask but when I approached him (wearing a mask by the way) he quickly put one on.

The 29-year-old looked fit and well but surprised me by saying that he suffered from a hereditary neurological muscle-wasting syndrome which made him vulnerable.

He said he would continue to wear a mask indoors, even though he had a displaced septum that made it difficult to breathe with one on.

He admitted: "It upsets me a little that not everyone is. I'm wearing a mask to help them but they're not helping me."

Mr Pestridge, from Maidstone, estimated that the split between wearers and non-wearers in shops was "about 50/50".

Shoppers in Week Street on Freedom Day
Shoppers in Week Street on Freedom Day

Just along at The Mall shopping centre, I found the one-way system, set out with neat little artificial hedges, still in place and most shoppers were still observing it, voluntarily.

One shopper, Ken Nuttall, had recently returned to Maidstone after spending most of his life as a contractor in Africa. He was wearing a mask.

Mr Nuttall, 77, said: "I've been double vaccinated and I've recently been checked over and have an absolutely clean bill of health.

"I'm very pleased that there are fewer regulations today.

"But although I appreciate the extra freedom I have not to wear a mask, I'm willing to surrender that freedom for the sake of others."

Ken Nuttall: I'll give up my freedom to help others
Ken Nuttall: I'll give up my freedom to help others

Outside, I checked the number of people leaving the centre by the King Street exit. In 20 minutes, 144 shoppers came out wearing a mask but they were exceeded by the non-mask wearers at 164.

On to the Archbishop's Palace, where the first wedding had just taken place since the easing of restrictions.

Previously venues had to cut guest lists to numbers they could accommodate with social distancing measures in place, and dancing and singing was not allowed afterwards.

The happy couple – two young women – were able to mingle with their guests without the need for masks, which would certainly have spoilt the wedding photos in the Knot Garden afterwards.

Sadly, they explained they were keeping their marriage a secret and didn't want to reveal their names.

Full marks to Sainsburys at Maidstone
Full marks to Sainsburys at Maidstone

Over at Sainsbury's in Romney Place, it was full marks to the store. All the staff were wearing masks and hand sanitiser units were still in place.

As I went in search of a can of Coke - it was baking hot today - it seemed to me that most customers were wearing masks too.

A tally outside the door confirmed it. In 20 minutes, 80 customers left the store wearing a mask, only 12 without.

So overall, I'd say Mr Pestridge had it about right.

Probably around 50% or upwards are still wearing a mask.

The town still seemed relatively empty
The town still seemed relatively empty

Even in the street, where it has never been required that you wear a mask, quite a lot of shoppers – say a third – are doing so.

And it was noticeable too that where the pavement was obstructed, people are still hanging back and waving others through in that polite way we've all developed with social distancing.

So far from Freedom Day seeing a great burning of the face-covering, it seems it's almost pretty much as before.

Perhaps, more worrying for traders, the town was relatively quiet – quieter I think than pre-Covid times. Maybe the real change that Covid brings will be a change in our spending habits?

To see how people have reacted elsewhere in the county, click here.

Read more: All the latest news from Maidstone

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