By PAN PYLAS for the Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — Last-minute shoppers in England were out in force Wednesday and thirsty drinkers planned their final freshly poured pints in a pub for the next month as Britain prepared to join large swathes of Europe in a coronavirus lockdown designed to save its health care system from being overwhelmed.
All non-essential venues — which in England includes pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, golf courses, gyms, swimming pools, entertainment venues and stores selling items like books, clothing and sneakers — must close Thursday until at least Dec. 2. That ruling came after a sudden change of course last weekend by Britain’s government, which had for weeks been advocating a targeted regional response to the pandemic instead of another national lockdown.
Two changes from the U.K.’s spring lockdown is that this time schools and universities in England are remaining open, as are construction sites and factories.
With time running out to get things sorted out before the lockdown and of Christmas, all types of businesses were reporting brisk business, sometimes on an unprecedented scale.
“This has been the busiest day any of us can remember, but I’m not sure this is the right thing to do,” said Miri Buci, a 30-year-old barber at Dulwich Barbers in southeast London, which was staying open later than usual to cope with the increased demand. “What are we going to do if we don’t get a vaccine? Lock down every few months?”
Many lawmakers in Parliament, particularly from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, feel the same way and argued that the new lockdown is too draconian and will further devastate an economy that suffered one of the deepest recessions in the world during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.
Still, Johnson easily won a vote on the new measures later Wednesday as most opposition lawmakers backed the lockdown.
“I don’t think any government would want to impose these measures lightly, or any parliament would want to impose these measures lightly on the people of this country,” Johnson said.
England’s lockdown follows similar restrictions elsewhere in the U.K., which recorded another 492 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest daily increase since May. Overall, the U.K. has Europe’s highest official virus-related death toll: 47,742.
It also follows fresh restrictions across the continent and clear signals that the number of people hospitalized — and subsequently dying — from the virus is increasing,
The World Health Organization said European countries recorded a 46% increase in virus deaths compared with the previous week and were responsible for about half the 1.7 million cases reported around the world last week.
In recent days, many European nations — including Belgium, Russia, France, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and the U.K. — have reported their highest daily virus death tolls in months, and sometimes ever. The pandemic has already caused more than 1.2 million confirmed deaths — over 270,000 of them in Europe, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say the true toll, due to missed cases and limited testing, is much higher.
Italy, which suffered badly during the first wave of the pandemic, is also facing new curbs on freedom of movement from Thursday, including a nationwide overnight curfew and high schools placed on full-time distance learning.
The country is expected to be carved up into three zones of contagion with corresponding restrictions on movement, commercial activities and school openings depending on infection rates and hospital capacity. Travel restrictions will prohibit anyone from entering or leaving a hard-hit region and restaurants and shops will close, except for supermarkets and pharmacies.
The northern region of Lombardy, which bore the brunt of the pandemic earlier this year, is reeling under another surge, especially in its financial capital, Milan, and is expected to face harsher restrictions.
Yet elsewhere, earlier restrictions appeared to be producing some results.
Belgium, one of the most-affected nations in Europe, said Wednesday that new coronavirus infections and hospital admissions have started to stabilize after measures like closing pubs and restaurants were introduced weeks ago.
“The high-speed train is slowing down,” said virologist Steven Van Gucht of the Sciensano government health group.
But Van Gucht said it was important that people don’t let their guard down. Belgium has been recording around 1,750 cases per 100,000 people, triple the rates in Italy, Spain or the U.K.
“Let there be no doubt that the tough rules need to be maintained,” he said.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said there were some signs that closing bars and restaurants was working but that further curbs were needed. Beginning Wednesday night, Dutch cinemas, theaters, museums and pools will be closed.
“It’s not going too bad but certainly not good enough,” Rutte told the country. “The infection numbers have to go down quicker.”
Pope Francis urged people to be “very attentive” to measures to prevent coronavirus infections as he switched his weekly general audience Wednesday back to his private library and livestreamed the event. The move seeks to better protect the 83-year-old pope after someone at a recent public audience tested positive.
Not all countries are going down the lockdown route. Russia has shunned a second lockdown, insisting that its health care system is able to cope with the recent surge. Still, Russia on Wednesday reported 19,768 new infections and 389 new deaths — both records.
Associated Press writers around Europe contributed to this report.