LONDON -- Last-minute shoppers in England came out in force Wednesday and thirsty drinkers enjoyed their final freshly poured pints in a pub for the next month before Britain joins swaths of Europe in a coronavirus lockdown designed to save its health care system from being overwhelmed.
All nonessential venues -- which in England includes pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, golf courses, gyms, swimming pools, entertainment places and stores selling items like books, clothing and sneakers -- must close today until at least Dec. 2. That order came after a 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.
Unlike the U.K.'s spring lockdown, schools and universities in England are remaining open this time, as are construction sites and factories.
In London's Soho nightlife district, large crowds packed bars and pubs as many took the opportunity to have a drink with friends for the last time before restrictions begin.
With time running out to get things sorted before the lockdown takes effect, many shops and hair salons extended their hours and reported brisk customer traffic on the last day.
Fears about a devastating economic impact of the monthlong shutdown prompted some lawmakers from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party to vote against approving the lockdown in Parliament on Wednesday. Still, Johnson easily won the vote as most opposition lawmakers backed the move.
"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.
Meanwhile, doctors in England have been put on standby for the possible roll-out of a coronavirus vaccine before Christmas.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of the National Health Service in England, told the BBC on Wednesday that with more than 200 covid-19 vaccines in development, one will "hopefully" be available in the first part of next year, but doctors will be "gearing up" in case it is ready sooner.
The U.K.'s drug regulator has started accelerated reviews of vaccines under development by Pfizer Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc, as Britain gets ready to approve the first successful shot as quickly as possible.
England's lockdown follows similar restrictions elsewhere in the U.K., which recorded another 492 covid-19 deaths Wednesday, the highest daily number since May. Overall, the U.K. has Europe's highest official virus-related death toll: 47,832.
It also follows fresh restrictions across the continent amid evidence that the number of people hospitalized with covid-19 -- and subsequently dying -- 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 facing new curbs on freedom of movement starting today, including a nationwide overnight curfew and high schools placed on full-time distance learning.
The country is expected to be carved into three zones of contagion with corresponding restrictions on movement, commercial activities and school openings. Travel restrictions will prohibit anyone from entering or leaving a hard-hit region and restaurants and shops will close, except for supermarkets and pharmacies.
Earlier restrictions appeared, in some locations, to be producing results.
Belgium said Wednesday that new 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.
Van Gucht said it was important that people don't let their guard down in a country that has been recording around 1,750 cases per 100,000 people, triple the rates in Italy, Spain and the U.K.
In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said there were 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."Gallery: Coronavirus outbreak in the UK
Pope Francis also urged people to be "very attentive" to the 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 taking the lockdown route. Russia has shunned a second lockdown, insisting 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.
Information for this article was contributed by Pan Pylas of The Associated Press; and by Emily Ashton of Bloomberg News.