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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Bustling London life stilled by COVID-19 lockdown

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When Associated Press photographer Frank Augstein moved to London in 2015, what struck him most was the crowds.

Augstein, who grew up in a small town in western Germany, thought Britain’s capital of almost 9 million people was the busiest place he had ever seen.

In years of covering political dramas, moments of celebration and tragedy and major sporting events, Augstein’s photographs have captured the city’s ceaseless movement: Pedestrians swarming over the Millennium footbridge spanning the River Thames. Travelers from the U.K. and continental Europe thronging St. Pancras railway station. Commuters following London transit etiquette by carefully ignoring one another on a crowded Tube train, or waiting patiently in a snaking bus queue.

Amid the edifices of British monarchy and government, he captured tourists photographing Parliament’s Big Ben tower as the giant bell sounded for the last time before falling silent for years of repairs. Crowds outside Buckingham Palace, craning for a glimpse of soldiers Trooping the Color to mark the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. A group of children greeting Larry, cat-in-residence at the prime minister’s 10 Downing St. home.

Everywhere, there were people. Shoppers ambled between stores amid the Georgian splendor of Regent Street. Fans poured out of Wembley Stadium after an NFL game. Londoners, embracing innovation as well as tradition, have embraced American football alongside the home-grown soccer variety.

Augstein revisited those sites in recent days after Britain — like other countries around the world — went into effective lockdown to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. More than 42,000 people have been infected in Britain and over 4,300 have died, and health officials are warning that the peak of the outbreak is still days or weeks away.

He found the contrast surreal.

The office workers who cross the Millennium Bridge by the thousands each day to jobs in the financial district are now working from home. Parliament Square and the streets around Buckingham Palace are empty of tourists and vehicles. Regent Street’s stores are closed. Augstein found himself the only passenger on a Tube train that in normal times would be full. No one is queuing for buses these days.

Professional sports have been suspended and a jogger took advantage of the empty space around Wembley Stadium. A banner on the stadium reading “thank you fans” has been replaced with “Thank you NHS,” in tribute to the doctors, nurses and other staff of Britain’s beloved yet beleaguered National Health Service who are battling the pandemic.

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