Monday [July 19] saw the final stage in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap to end mandatory rules around mask wearing and social distancing.
Despite the end of legal restraints on the facial coverings and the ‘one metre plus rule’, little will change in Tunbridge Wells and surrounding areas.
The major supermarkets have all said they will ‘encourage’ shoppers to keep wearing face coverings and maintain social distancing.
In a statement, Sainsbury’s, whose branches include the Linden Park store and an express shop in St John’s Road, said new signs ‘will encourage customers to continue to wear a face covering, if they can’, with staff also encouraged to do so, unless they are behind a screen.
Tesco, which has a main store in Pembury and several express stores as well as a Crowborough supermarket, are also ‘encouraging’ customers to wear masks.
A spokesperson added: “Having listened to our customers and colleagues, we will continue to have safety measures in place in our stores; these include limiting the number of people in store at any time, protective screens at every checkout, hand sanitiser stations and regular cleaning.
“We’re asking our customers and colleagues to be on the safe side, and so from July 19 we’ll be encouraging our colleagues to wear face coverings whilst they work and encouraging our customers to do the same when they shop with us.”
Asda in Longfield Road as well as the budget supermarkets Lidl and Aldi, which have stores in Tunbridge Wells and Crowborough, have also said they, too, would ‘encourage’ the practice and keep many existing measures in place.
Meanwhile, pub and restaurant owners welcomed ‘Freedom Day’ but said there was still a lot of uncertainty in the industry.
Julian Leefe-Griffiths, who runs the Tunbridge Wells Hotel and the popular weekly Jazz on The Pantiles event, said: “Well, firstly it’s great that it’s called Freedom Day but somehow it doesn’t really feel like freedom, there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there and we’re all not really sure what the future holds.
“That said, it’s been great operating The Tunbridge Wells Hotel on The Pantiles this summer. The jazz is going really well, we’ve got a gin festival coming up at the end of the month, and then the food festival two weeks after that – so I think we have to keep positive, hopefully test negative and look to the future. Good luck all.”
Alex Greig, who runs Fuggles Beer Café in Grosvenor Road, added: “It’s going to be an interesting week for sure. So far it’s been nice to have some people back out and about who we haven’t seen for a long time.
“I think things will remain fairly similar overall, though – we’re operating in the same way we have been of late, just with the addition of customers being able to order/stand at the bar, which to some people is a huge thing.
“We’re still offering table service, still maintaining a high standard of cleaning and hygiene, and still selling great beer, gin and wine.”
Leisure centre increases capacity
More people will now be able to take part in sports and exercise classes and sessions at the three leisure centres in the Borough.
Fusion Lifestyle, which runs the Tunbridge Wells Sports Centre in St John’s, Putlands Sports Centre in Paddock Wood and the Weald Leisure Centre in Cranbrook, says the changes will allow more people to exercise safely at its centres.
Staff and customers will continue to be encouraged to wear masks as they move around centres and to distance where possible.
Anthony Cawley, Director of Fusion, said: “We are delighted that our facilities will be able to open to more members of the local community.
“We know our centres play a really important role in keeping residents fit and healthy and this latest news means we can help even more people achieve their goals.
“We know that people are still concerned about their safety, and we will be making these changes to capacity slowly and closely monitoring the situation.”
Police to still wear masks
Officers for Kent Police will still wear face masks despite face coverings no longer being mandatory elsewhere.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council [NPCC] has said it has written to all forces advising officers continue to wear personal protective equipment [PPE].
A spokesperson for Kent Police said: “In line with national guidance, Kent Police officers and staff will continue to wear personal protective equipment after July 19, to ensure the overall safety of the workforce and the communities.”
Hospital: Covid rules will stay in place
There will also be no change to Covid procedures at Tunbridge Wells Hospital and local GP surgeries, local health bodies have said.
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust [MTW], which runs both the hospital in Pembury as well as the one in Maidstone, introduced a raft of measures during the pandemic to protect medical staff and patients from the virus.
The reduction in the number of patients could result in a record backlog of 35,526 people waiting for non-emergency treatment, which was reported in the Times last week.
The hospital has partnered with private clinics to increase the number of patients it can see, and will introduce other measures such as staggered appointments and use of ‘virtual clinics’.
Despite this, both MTW and the Kent and Medway Commissioning Group [CCG] say there will be ‘no change’ to the procedures for both staff and patients at the hospital and GP surgeries.
This means masks will still have to be worn by patients, visitors and staff in all healthcare settings, while social distancing will remain as well as restrictions on visitor numbers.
In a statement, Kent and Medway CCG added: “We understand this may be frustrating for some people who do not wish to wear a mask or socially distance, but this is for the benefit of everyone; please don’t abuse NHS staff who are here to protect and care for patients and their loved ones.
“Please remember that having both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine offers the best protection against the virus; it is, however, still possible to contract coronavirus, so anything we can do to protect each other and ourselves remains vitally important.”
Theatre hopes for a full house
The Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells has released thousands of tickets for its upcoming shows now that restrictions have been eased.
The 950-seat theatre is now able to run at full capacity for the first time since the pandemic began.
The theatre had seen its audiences slashed to as low as 250 when it was first allowed to reopen in October last year.
It then had to close again shortly afterwards as the second wave hit, until May this year, but provided testing services for town during the interim.
It now says that thanks to the lifting of restrictions it can release ‘thousands’ of tickets for its previously sold-out shows.
These include popular TV comedians John Bishop [November 17-18], and Jimmy Carr [Jan 19, 2022].
The Assembly Hall is following the advice of the Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre [SOLT] and will ‘encourage’ mask wearing.
Assembly Hall Theatre Director JJ Almond said: “We will be able to offer live entertainment to more people, ensuring that live arts stay at the heart of our communities and drive footfall into the town centre for local hospitality businesses.
“Our venue can fill up to the rafters again and people can celebrate the restrictions lifting with art.”