LONDON (AP) — Thirsty drinkers in England will be enjoying their final freshly poured pints in a pub for a month Wednesday while shoppers will get one last dose of retail therapy as the country prepares to join large swathes of Europe in lockdown as part of intensified efforts to contain the resurgent coronavirus.
Pubs, along with restaurants, hairdressers and other retailing outlets deemed to be selling non-essential items, such as books and sneakers, will have to close their doors Thursday until at least Dec. 2 following a sudden change of course last weekend by the British government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had for weeks argued in favor of more regional strategies to contain the virus, but said he had to be “humble in the face of nature.”
British lawmakers are set to approve the latest lockdown measures later so they can take effect at midnight.
“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. and across Europe, as nations grapple with mounting new COVID-19 infections and clear signals that the number of people being hospitalized — and subsequently dying — from the virus are increasing,
The World Health Organization said late Tuesday that there has been a “further acceleration” in the speed of the virus′ spread in Europe, which was responsible for about half the new cases reported around the world last week. In a weekly report, the U.N. agency also said European countries recorded a 46% increase in deaths compared with the previous week.
The virus’ resurgence over the past couple of months has caught many European countries by surprise following a summer when infections were clearly down on where they had been in the spring during the first wave of the pandemic.
In recent days, many, including Belgium, France, Italy and the U.K. have reported their highest daily death tolls in months, prompting authorities to reintroduce restrictions to get ahead of the virus that has rampaged across the world, causing more than 1.2 million deaths — over 270,000 of them in Europe, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Particularly stringent rules now apply in France, for example, and more partial shutdowns are in effect in countries like Germany and Greece. England, which goes into lockdown on Thursday, will also face a severe lockdown even though it won’t be as stringent as the one imposed in the spring — schools and universities haven’t been closed while the manufacturing and construction sectors remain open.
The spring lockdowns clearly worked in the sense of sharply reducing the rate of growth of new infections and then suppressing it to very low levels. There are some signals that the restrictions put up in the past few weeks are beginning to work too.
Belgium, which proportionally is the most-affected nation in Europe, said Wednesday that new infections and hospital admissions appear to have started to stabilize in the wake of the reimposition of new measures, such as the closure of pubs and restaurants.
“The high-speed train is slowing down,” said virologist Steven Van Gucht of the Sciensano government health group.
Van Gucht said it was important that people don’t let their guard down in Belgium, which has been recording around 1,750 cases per 100,000 people, triple the rates being recorded in Italy, Spain and the U.K.
“Let there be no doubt that the tough rules need to be maintained,” he said.
Pope Francis also urged people to follow recommendations from government and public health authorities to prevent coronavirus infections as he held his weekly general audience in private amid a surge of infections in Europe.
The Vatican announced last week that Francis was suspending public audiences and would celebrate all upcoming liturgies without throngs of faithful present, after someone who attended his Oct. 21 audience tested positive.
Francis held his audience Wednesday in his private library with around 10 priests on hand to translate summaries of his catechism lesson. The livestreamed audience is the same setup Francis used during the Vatican’s nearly three-month COVID-19 lockdown in the spring and summer.
He said people have to be “very attentive” to the advice of political and health authorities to defend us against the pandemic.
“We offer to the Lord this distance among us for the good of all,” he said.
All across Europe, the restrictions come with a heavy cost especially in the countdown to the crucial Christmas period, which many businesses rely upon to turn a profit. The latest decision, according to Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, represents nothing less than a “nightmare before Christmas.”
Not all countries are going down the lockdown route despite a sharp increase in infections. Russia, for example, has shunned a second lockdown, insisting that the health care system is able to cope with the surge, even as it reported another near 20,000 new infections and 389 new deaths — both at their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.