London  -  England’s 56 million people entered a second coronavirus lockdown on Thursday, with many downing a final round of drinks and in some cities scuffling with police as scepticism mounts about the government’s return to stringent curbs.

Late-night revellers clashed with police, including in parts of London and the northern city of Leeds, while lengthy traffic jams developed in the hours before midnight as motorists sought to escape the capital. Across England, crowds gathered at pubs before staff called last orders late Wednesday. Hairdressers have been deluged this week, and winding queues snaked outside clothes and other retailers on the final day of pre-lockdown shopping.

Last weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson abandoned a recently introduced system of regional curbs and announced an England-wide shutdown, after dire warnings that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases. 

While opinion polls suggest overall public backing for the stay-at-home policy, concerns are mounting about the impact on the economy and on mental health. 

“For us, it’s absolutely insane,” Faraj Faraj, head of operations at the London food market Mercato Metropolitano, told AFP. “To go through this again, just before Christmas, is actually death by a thousand cuts. We will adapt, we will survive, but we have to take a different approach,” he said.

“We did all the things they asked us to do, we invested that money and now we are being told to close down again. I know we need to get the cases under control, but let’s use this time to get our contact tracing done properly.”

To shore up Britain’s reeling economy, the Bank of England on Thursday unveiled an extra £150 billion ($195 billion), on top of new measures to subsidise the wages of furloughed workers until March.

- December 2 deadline -

Johnson, insisting the lockdown will end on December 2, is pinning his hopes on an ambitious new programme of Covid testing to detect and isolate infected people, starting with a city-wide trial launching in Liverpool on Friday.

But so far, despite government spending of £12 billion on testing programmes, researchers say that only one in five of confirmed cases has been properly isolating, and officials have been failing to reach most of their contacts.

When the country entered its first lockdown in bright March springtime, support was strong. But compliance with coronavirus measures has been fraying the longer they drag on into the winter.

A sizeable minority of 34 MPs from Johnson’s ruling Conservative party rebelled against the new measures on Wednesday during a vote in parliament hours before they took effect. Another 18 abstained, including his predecessor Theresa May.

But Johnson pointed to the experience of France and others in Europe, where countries have been seeking mutual support to prevent their own health systems getting swamped.

“I’m not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people,” he told parliament.

- No partying -

The restrictions include a return to working from home where possible and the closure of all non-essential shops and services. Schools will remain open. 

Nightclubs have remained shuttered since the first lockdown in March. Simeon Alred, co-founder of the giant Printworks venue in London’s Docklands, said the latest curbs would be especially hard ahead of the Christmas party season. 

“All night-time economy businesses, all entertainment businesses, all leisure businesses absolutely rely on the winter boom, and December, and party land,” he said.

“To enter another lockdown at this key time, without funding, and without any kind of recognition from the government, it’s going to be really, really challenging.”

                  Britain is among the world’s hardest-hit countries with nearly 48,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus from just over one million positive cases.

                  A total of 492 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were recorded on Wednesday -- the highest number since mid-May.