Countries across Europe are reimposing painful restrictions on public life as a surge in coronavirus infections heightens fears the pandemic is tightening its grip, bringing another public health emergency closer just as winter approaches.
In Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, infections hit record daily highs on Thursday while France imposed evening curfews on its biggest cities and Londoners faced new limits on socialising indoors.
The resurgence of the virus is a huge setback for a continent that had largely succeeded in bringing infection rates down to manageable levels over the summer, after implementing tough lockdowns.
“Parts of Europe have lost control,” said Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at the Bernhard Nocht Institute in Hamburg. “Authorities are no longer able to influence the spread of the virus.”
Germany, which has so far weathered the pandemic better than its neighbours, reported 6,600 new cases on Thursday — a new record. “The decisive challenge we face — not only in Germany but in the whole of Europe — is whether we can break the dynamic of the second wave and reach calmer waters,” said Peter Altmaier, economy minister.
The UK, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic have all unveiled new virus-related restrictions this week.
Health systems around the continent are switching to crisis mode as hospital wards begin to fill up with Covid-19 patients. Fears are growing that medical facilities could soon be inundated and that the swelling volume of new cases could overwhelm track-and-trace teams tasked with interrupting the virus’ chains of transmission.
The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office welcomed the measures, calling them “absolutely necessary” to save lives. “The message to governments is: do not hold back with relatively small actions to avoid the painful damaging actions we saw in the first [virus wave],” Hans Kluge said.
Virus cases started to tick upwards after European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to kickstart economies that had been hit hard by the restrictions. But public health experts say Europeans let down their guard, holidaying abroad in large numbers, ignoring social-distancing rules and gathering in groups to eat, drink and socialise.
In the week to October 11, Europe registered its highest weekly number of Covid-19 infections since the pandemic began, with almost 700,000 new cases, according to WHO statistics.
Europe imposes new lockdown measures
New cases per day: 18,980
Three-tier system introduced to curb surge in infections
Socialising with other households indoors to be banned in London
Strict lockdown measures in northern cities such as Liverpool
Local lockdowns in parts of Scotland and Wales
New cases per day: 6,638
Threshold for local lockdown restrictions cut
Power to limit gatherings and impose curfews
Bars and nightclubs could be ordered to close
Peter Altmaier, economy minister: ‘Decisive challenge is whether we can break the dynamic of the second wave’
Governments have so far steered clear of draconian measures such as closing schools or reimposing nationwide shutdowns, for fear of inflicting more harm on economies still struggling to emerge from recession.
They have instead ordered curfews, bar and restaurant closures and curbs on social gatherings. But it remains unclear whether such limited measures will be sufficient to flatten the current curve.
Some of the most drastic measures were adopted by France, where the government reimposed a state of emergency on Wednesday and President Emmanuel Macron announced a 9pm-6am curfew for Paris and eight other big cities from Saturday.
He was responding to a steady rise in the number of infections and hospitalisations in France over recent weeks. “Our intensive care wards are under unsustainable pressure,” Mr Macron said.
French ministers said the aim of the restrictions was to curb private parties and gatherings among the young, which are thought to be one of the biggest sources of new infections.
In the UK, authorities announced that Londoners would be banned from socialising with other households in any indoor setting from midnight on Friday. Matt Hancock, health secretary, said infection rates were on a “steep upward path” in the capital and doubling every 10 days. Liverpool, in north-west England, has already been placed under a severe lockdown.
In the Netherlands, which has had one of the worst infection rates over the past month, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced on Tuesday that the country was entering a “partial lockdown” for at least four weeks, as new cases topped 7,000 a day.
Cafés, restaurants and bars have all been shut and the government has made the wearing of masks obligatory in all indoor public spaces and schools.
The surge has also affected countries that were left relatively unscathed by the first wave, with the Czech Republic a standout example. Almost 10,000 new cases were reported on Thursday, the most since the pandemic began, and nearly half of all confirmed infections in the country since the start of the outbreak have been recorded in the past two weeks.
Painful restrictions reintroduce for public life
New cases per day: 22,591
National ‘state of health emergency’ imposed to enforce new measures
Strict 9pm curfew in big cities including Paris, Lille, Lyon, Montpellier and Toulouse
Offenders risk fines of €135, rising to €1,500 for repeat offenders
New cases per day: 9,544
Bars, restaurants, cultural and sporting facilities closed along with schools
Nearly half of all confirmed infections since pandemic began recorded in past two weeks
Prime minister Andrej Babis calls surge in cases ‘catastrophic’
The Czech Republic went into a strict lockdown early in the pandemic, but when the second wave hit, authorities were slow to react. Cases started to surge last month but it was not until last week that they closed cultural and sports facilities, while restaurants, bars and schools were only closed on Wednesday.
Andrej Babis, the prime minister who described the rise in cases as “catastrophic”, warned on Thursday that the Czech Republic was running out of time to put the healthcare infrastructure in place to cope with the surge. “We urgently need to build spare capacity,” he said. “The forecast is not good.”
In Spain, where infections rose dramatically in August and September before appearing to slow, a number of regions including Catalonia have unveiled new restrictions. Portugal also unveiled new curbs on public gatherings this week.
German authorities this week lowered the threshold for tougher measures to be introduced in virus hotspots. That would allow the government to demand mask wearing in public, restrict the number of guests at private parties and the early closure of restaurants and bars.
Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, James Shotter in Warsaw, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Victor Mallet in Paris and Mehreen Khan in Brussels