London CNN  — 

The revered English poet William Blake once purportedly likened an English pub to a church, with two important caveats: “a pub is warmer, and there’s more conversation.”

For the writer Samuel Johnson, there was “nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.” And the sentiment was captured by Shakespeare, too: a character in “Henry V” wishes he were “in an alehouse in London,” reasoning: “I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.”

Pubs are the beating heart of Britain, as vital a national institution as The Bard’s writings themselves. But for the first time since World War II, ale and safety have become mutually exclusive commodities – and millions have been locked out of their locals since mid-March as a result.

“I’ve missed going to the pub with my mates, as any British person would,” says Akwasi Akoto, 25. But England finally returned to the pub on Saturday, the first day of the country’s latest, most significant easing of lockdown restrictions. Those in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales must wait longer to return to their local.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the UK’s 60,000 pubs to close 15 weeks ago to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Arguably, nothing has symbolized the country’s subsequent social and cultural paralysis more than the sight of boarded up taverns on every high street.

But if the first pints pulled in months represent a national celebration, it’s a muted and awkward one. The experience looks very different: social distancing is mandatory and only table service is allowed, so the typical sight of punters wedged shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar after work remains a pre-pandemic memory.

A drinker scans a QR code in order to enter contact-tracing details before entering a south London pub.

And despite a growing ambivalence towards the lockdown in recent weeks, concerns about public health remain in the country, which has suffered one of Europe’s most deadly Covid-19 outbreaks. Even in the UK’s beer gardens, many are angry about how their country got its coronavirus response so wrong.

“What makes it so almost dystopian is that the staff are wearing such heavy PPE just to bring you a drink,” Akoto, who filed through the doors of a London pub shortly after 10 a.m., tells CNN. “It feels a bit self-indulgent and a bit selfish – I felt selfish being there.” For the thousands who placed an order on Saturday, many more stayed away.

But the day marked something of a catharsis for others, and the mood was jovial among those who did cross the threshold into their favorite taverns. “I wanted a slice of normality,” says Craig Sartwright, explaining his decision to venture into a pub in Clapham, south London, where he pointedly keeps his distance from other drinkers.

“I definitely feel people have missed the pubs, especially some of the most vulnerable in our society,” adds Owen Reed, a staff member at a Wetherspoons pub in Bedworth, central England. “Many of our customers are older, and sometimes have no close family and friends.

“Them coming into the pub to see us is sometimes the only human contact they will have all day, or longer.”

‘This is all very worrying’

As with everything else, drinking in the age of coronavirus feels different.

Customers at pubs across the country were asked for contact details before they could enter, in order to help with Covid-19 contact-tracing should someone subsequently test positive. In many establishments, plastic screens were set up and glasses were swapped out for disposable cups.

“We have tried in our efforts not to make the pub too clinical and utterly joyless,” the Southampton Arms in north London told its customers. And most significantly for the landlords across the country whose finances have been hit by the pandemic, venues were running significantly under capacity.

But despite the industry’s best attempts, it was almost inevitable that the day of re-opening – dubbed “Super Saturday” – would be tense.

“At 10:30 there was a guy riding his electric scooter in Spoons,” Akoto says, referring to the wildly popular, low-cost chain Wetherspoons that is affectionately known by its nickname by many Brits. “The crazy cranky people that you associate with British pubs, I’m sure wherever they are they’re rubbing their hands with glee to be able to get on it.” The chain has been criticized for its treatment of its staff during the pandemic, and for its owner’s opposition to the lockdown.

A member of staff serves customers at a pub in Stratford, east London.

Britain’s pubs haven’t been forced to shut en masse in living memory, and closing time was a painful process for landlords, staff and drinkers alike – leading to concerns that a country with such an entrenched drinking culture would overdo it on Saturday.

Some taverns around had planned a midnight re-opening until the government mandated they remain shut until 6 a.m. By Friday afternoon, it was difficult to book at table at many London establishments. Several in south London told CNN they expected queues on the street, and as Saturday came, they were proved right.

“We haven’t been out the house in three months essentially, we’ve been isolating. This is really the first time that we’ve been able to come out,” Bianca, a resident of Clapham, south London, tells CNN outside an O’Neills pub. “I’m worried that not everyone has the same attitude as us.”

“I don’t think everyone is that sensible,” adds Phil Crossan. “There’ll be people who will stay out all night now.”

Those concerns prompted Boris Johnson to hold a Friday afternoon press conference in which he urged restraint – but many questioned whether a Saturday opening was wise, and plenty of institutions decided to ignore it altogether.

“It’s our belief that the government are ignoring the advice that science is telling us,” the Tollington Arms in north London told its customers on Twitter, announcing its decision to stay closed for now. “We cannot in good conscience open the pub when contracting a deadly virus is still possible under these guidelines.”

The Twelve Taps, in the southeast England town of Whitstable, added: “We do not think we can implement social distancing in our bar, and given the fact that people are still dying from this virus, nothing we have read convinces us that it is the right thing to do to encourage people into a small space,” it said.

“This is all very worrying and quite maddening,” the pub added. “We don’t think the government’s advice for the public and for hospitality businesses has been clear.”

“It’s earlier than I would have thought they’d be open,” Sartwright adds.

Other landlords, meanwhile, were waiting with bated breath for the chance to welcome customers.

‘People have started to give up’

It’s always been true that the quickest way to understand Britain is by going to its pubs. And in many taverns around the country, Britain is angry.

“It’s devastating,” says Bianca, who declined to provide her last name. “I’ve found it quite hard because my family’s from Australia,” she adds. “Seeing how the UK has handled (the pandemic) has made me panic.”

The re-opening of pubs is little distraction from the tortuous four months the country has suffered, which has seen Johnson’s government come under increased scrutiny as the UK has had one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Europe.

The Plough Inn in Ford, central England welcomes drinkers for the first time in almost four months.

Few feel the lockdown restrictions went too far – far more argue that the government didn’t do enough in maintaining it, particularly in the wake of the Dominic Cummings scandal that all but ended total public adherance with the rules.

“I think Dominic Cummings was the turning point,” Bianca says. “The lockdown definitely benefits the upper class of society and I think Cummings highlighted that – he can do what he wants.” Johnson has always denied that his aide broke the UK’s lockdown restrictions.

Pubs in England re-opened alongside a slew of other businesses on Saturday, and restrictions on public meetings and indoor gatherings were also relaxed.

But Britain’s crawl towards normality hasn’t been easy; the city of Leicester was sent back into lockdown days earlier due to a localized outbreak, and other regions are being monitored as cases tick back up.

“As time’s gone on, people have started to give up a bit,” says Crossan. “We started strong but maintaining it and keeping the morale was lost along the way,” adds Akoto.

“My friends and I are in the habit of meeting up in parks now, and the weather’s nice – so I definitely won’t be going to the pub again soon.”

Concerns over social distancing

But relaxing back into a new type of normal has proved not to be easy. As Saturday got into full swing, and around the country thousands of friends met in pubs for the first time in months, there were reports of drunken behavior and people ignoring social distancing rules.

Five pubs in Nottinghamshire, East Midlands, decided to close early following anti-social behavior, police said, and officers made four arrests following reports of a smashed window and minor assault.

However, Inspector Craig Berry thanked “the majority of the public who have acted responsibly throughout Saturday.”

Devon and Cornwall Police, in southwest England, said they had received over 1,000 calls on Saturday from members of the public, mostly related to “drink related disorder.”

And in Essex, southeast England, an officer Tweeted to say police had made four arrests.

Police officers walk through heavy crowds in Soho, London on July 4.

On social media, while some people said pubs had not been as busy as expected, many people shared images of what appeared to be packed pubs and busy streets.

One person shared a video from London’s popular Soho district, which appeared to show hundreds of people packed together outside. In the video, posted to Twitter at just after 10 p.m., revelers can be seen in close contact with one another while police patrol the area.

John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation for England and Wales, said on Twitter on Saturday it was “crystal clear” that “drunk people can’t / won’t socially distance.”

After finishing a shift, he wrote: “A busy shift, we dealt with anti social behavior, naked men, possession of class ‘A’ drugs, happy drunks, angry drunks, fights, more angry drunks and was called a fascist pig by somebody we tried to help!”

CNN’s Sara Spary contributed to this report.