Although wearing a face mask was no longer a legal requirement, many travellers and shoppers in London and Birmingham chose to continue covering up as they went about their morning business.
Commuters at Birmingham New Street committed to widespread mask-wearing, with almost half still wearing them around the station and many saying they would put one on when they got on a train.
Of 100 people passing through the station entrance on Thursday morning, 48 were wearing masks, with a variety of different reasons for doing so – on the day not wearing one stopped being an offence in England.
“I think I’ll keep wearing one for the foreseeable. The number of colds and coughs I’ve had over the past couple of years has gone right down, and wearing a mask is not that bad,” said salesman Stuart Whitman, 50.
“I’m not as worried about Covid any more, I feel like we’re on the way out, but I find it a lot healthier to wear a mask. At this time of year there are loads of germs going round with the kids going back to school, and I like not having a cold.”
But there were also many people who were relieved to be ditching face coverings.
“I’m no longer wearing one. Everyone should be vaccinated and we’ve got to live with it now. It’s not going to go away. We can’t keep restricting our lives for every strain of coronavirus,” said 57-year-old Steve Horne. “It’s up to everyone what they want to do now. But I’m fully vaccinated so I’m led to believe I’m protected.”
In the capital, mayor Sadiq Khan has said Londoners must keep donning their masks on public transport, and in Waterloo train station only a handful of people were spotted flouting the rules.
Marilia Perry, originally from Leeds, said mask wearing was still important to her and that she continued to work from home. She recently got her booster jab but said she “would like to respect others who might not have had all their vaccinations yet”.
Walking by the South Bank, Marie Braniff-Hudson, 66 and her husband, David Hudson 65, wore their masks outdoors, and said their expat life in Singapore, where rules were much stricter, has made them accustomed to wearing masks.
“In Singapore, you would be fined if you are not wearing a mask,” said Hudson. Braniff-Hudson said the couple were shocked when they saw people not wearing them in England. “We now have an Asian frame of mind,” she said.
With advice to work from home now eased, Transport for London reported a small uptick in travellers on Thursday. Up to 10am, 1.2 million people had taken the tube – up 9% compared to last week, but still only half of pre-pandemic levels.
City of London workers were slowly returning to the office. About 120,000 commuters used connecting tube stops on Thursday morning, a 12% increase compared with last Thursday.
Shops revealed a similar mask-wearing majority to public transport. When the Guardian visited the Charing Cross branch of Waterstones, which no longer had posters on mask requirements, all of the nine shoppers wore face coverings. Only one of the 10 customers in the Tesco opposite Trafalgar Square was maskless.
In the Birmingham branch of variety store Flying Tiger, seven out of 10 customers were wearing masks, and in Foyles bookshop every customer was wearing one. But around the corner in Tesco Express numbers were much lower – there was one mask-wearer to six unmasked.
Many cited high case numbers as one of the main reasons why they were still choosing to wear a face covering. “Coronavirus hasn’t gone away, it’s still very much in evidence. We’ve had our vaccinations but it doesn’t stop you getting it,” said 74-year-old Shelia Roberts, who had travelled to Birmingham for the day from her home on the outskirts of Redditch.
“We’re obviously of the senior variety, so for us it’s safer to continue wearing them in certain places. We’re going to the Hippodrome theatre, so we’ll almost certainly wear them in there. If I go to the supermarket, I always wear it and I’ll continue to.”
“You’ve got to use your own common sense, and if I feel I want to wear them for the rest of my life then it’s up to me,” added her friend, 71-year-old Glenda Smith. “What’s the harm in a little bit of fabric to keep you well?”