European countries prepare tougher Covid-19 social curbs

European countries are poised to tighten coronavirus crisis restrictions as soaring infection rates stoke alarm across the continent, sending stocks to their lowest level since May.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is due to hold talks on Wednesday with premiers of the country’s 16 states about proposed new curbs, while France’s president Emmanuel Macron will give a televised address to the nation in the evening.

In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, will speak about potential extra EU-wide measures to halt the advance of Covid-19. Charles Michel, her counterpart at the European Council of EU leaders, called for enhanced bloc-wide measures, including to boost testing capabilities and the deployment of vaccines once they are ready.

“Within the space of just a few weeks, the situation has escalated from worrying to alarming,” Mr Michel wrote in a blog, ahead of a videoconference of EU premiers and presidents on Thursday to discuss the pandemic’s resurgence. “Now we must avoid a tragedy.”

The Stoxx 600 index was down 1.7 per cent in mid-morning trading on Wednesday and has lost more than 5 per cent since the end of last week as local markets in Frankfurt, Paris and London have endured bouts of selling.

Ms Merkel wants German state leaders to close restaurants and bars but keep schools and nurseries open, according to a draft proposal of the measures reported by Reuters. Fitness studios, discos, cinemas, theatres, opera houses and concert venues would also shut.

In France, the government has yet to indicate what measures Mr Macron will announce. It said on Tuesday that without tougher restrictions, within two weeks patient numbers in intensive care could reach the peak seen during the pandemic’s first wave in April.

On Tuesday, France reported 523 Covid-19 deaths during the previous 24 hours, the highest total since April 22. In Germany, coronavirus cases rose by 11,409 to 449,275 on Tuesday.

The trends in the EU’s two leading powers reflect a wider continental tilt as countries scramble to deal with large rises in case numbers. Some have said they fear hospitals will be overwhelmed unless more severe social controls are imposed.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, at a press conference in Brussels, in March
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is to speak about potential extra EU-wide measures to halt the advance of Covid-19 © Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty

Belgium, headquarters of the EU, has become the worst affected country of the 31 comprising the European Economic Area and the UK, according to data published on Tuesday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Belgium had a 14-day cumulative number of 1,390.9 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, ahead of the Czech Republic on 1,379.8 and Luxembourg on 760.4. France suffered 629.4 cases, the UK 415.6 and Germany 144.3.

EU leaders have stepped up efforts to co-ordinate national responses and avoid repeats of the chaos of sudden border closures and bans on exports of healthcare products seen during the pandemic’s first wave.

The European Council’s Mr Michel warned that, while health policy is the remit of member states rather than EU institutions, the pandemic had shown that “no single country can tackle the situation on its own”.

“Questions regarding competence cannot be allowed to impede essential action,” he wrote in his blog published late on Tuesday. “When the flood waters are rising is no time to discuss who should fetch the buckets.”

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