Published: 10:00, 20 July 2021
You might have been expecting people up and down the country to be ripping their masks from their faces and flinging them into the air in celebration of Freedom Day on Monday - but the reality was a rather more cautious affair.
As coronavirus restrictions were fully lifted after 18 months, including social distancing rules and laws over the wearing of PPE, many residents erred on the side of caution.
In Sittingbourne the streets weren’t jam packed and a lot of people retained face coverings.
One shopper who came in with her son and daughter thought she may be the only one wearing a mask today.
Stay-at-home mum Elise Hogan, 31, was among them. She said: “It has been a real shock to be honest. You read everywhere about Freedom Day and nightclubs opening and you expected everyone to just give up on trying to stay safe, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount wearing masks.
“It’s nothing like when lockdown was first lifted and people came swarming to the high street. It’s been very calm.”
Bricklayer Sam Davies, of London Road, Sittingbourne, was glad to see the back of restrictions.
The 28-year-old added: “I have only popped in to town for a couple of bits but I did expect it to be a lot busier than this, but I think people are switching off to all these rule changes now as it’s been going on for so long.”
A stroll around the town centre saw more masks on shoppers than not and an overwhelming majority at Sittingbourne’s train station putting safety first.
When we visited the platform 12 people, not including staff, were waiting for trains. Of those, 10 people were keeping their masks on and two younger men opted to go without.
The glaring sun may have helped out, but the re-opening of the street to cars after months of restrictions was a blessing for traders in the town.
One big difference on Swale high Streets, including Sheerness, was the return of cars. The temporary pedestrianisation, to allow for social distancing during the pandemic, had been blamed by many traders for poor takings at an already difficult time.
David Schwab, of Bitz and Bobs in Sheerness Broadway said it was too early to tell whether the road ban being lifted had made a difference, but that there was a good amount of people out for a Monday morning and he had kept his protective screens in place.
Lisa Ponds of Youwomen store, directly opposite the clock tower, was surprised to see so many people still wearing masks.
She said: “I hope now Freedom Day has come about and there aren’t any restrictions people will feel a bit safer about going out, especially if they’re double jabbed.
“People are still quite wary, there’s wariness today from what I’ve heard in the first couple of hours. More people have come in wearing masks which I’m quite surprised about.
“I’ve asked them about it and they say there is still a risk so feel more comfortable wearing them.
“Whether that’s going to change over the next few weeks or if it’s because it’s the first day I don’t know.”
Tesco’s superstore in Sheerness was buzzing with customers both masked and unmasked on Monday morning. Of around 200 customers observed making their way in from 11.30am, nearly 150 were continuing to wear face coverings.
Swale council leader Roger Truelove has called on people to use their common sense when out and about.
He said: "We have to recognise that the Government has removed practically all of the regulations introduced to stop the spread of the Covid virus.
“However, we are acutely conscious that infection rates are rising rapidly, so that our latest figures for Swale were reported at 285 per 100,000 yesterday, and continue to rise.
“In many settings we need people to use their common sense and maintain the need for social distancing, wearing masks and following good hygiene practices.
“Whilst there are no enforcement powers, we know that many businesses will continue to request people take sensible precautions and I urge people to follow them as they are in place to protect their staff and customers. There is also a vital need to continue with good practice in health settings.
“We all need to stay cautious, not just for ourselves but for each other, and remember whether immunised or not, many people remain extremely vulnerable to this virus.”