Tens of millions of Europeans are preparing to wave goodbye to their newfound freedoms on Friday, as governments across the continent clamp down with curfews, closures and other tough new restrictions to tackle a surging second wave of coronavirus.
In France and the UK, new restrictions are due to come into force at midnight Friday that will temporarily transform the social lives and economies of two leading global capitals. It comes as authorities elsewhere in Europe, from the Netherlands to Poland, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and the Spanish region of Catalonia have shut down or slapped restrictions on bars, restaurants and shops in response to a dramatic spike in infections; the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, France, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands have all reported record numbers of new cases in recent days.
In France, which announced a new high of more than 30,000 new cases in a 24-hour period on Thursday evening, a curfew from between 9PM to 6AM is set to come into force in the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris, as well as in eight other cities including Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse. The measures, made as the government declared a public health state of emergency, will impact an estimated 20 million people and will remain in force for at least four weeks.
In England, London, Essex, York and other areas will move into higher “Tier 2” restrictions, which involve a ban on people from different households mixing indoors, including in pubs and restaurants. The city of Liverpool Is already under the highest alert level of “Tier 3” — with pubs and restaurants closed and household mixing banned in any setting — and will be joined by the region of Lancashire Saturday.
The new restrictions mirror shutdowns elsewhere in Europe in recent days. In the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic, which has Europe’s highest infection rate per capita, pubs, bars and restaurants have been ordered to close.
In the Spanish region of Catalonia, new rules limit bars and restaurants to takeaway or delivery services. In Poland, bars and restaurants face a 9PM curfew, gyms and swimming pools are closed, and schools in red zones, like the capital Warsaw, can only operate distance learning. Tougher measures on gatherings have been announced in Germany and Portugal.
The partial lockdowns have faced opposition from some quarters. In Manchester, Mayor Andy Burnham is fighting government attempts to place the city under the highest alert level, calling the rules flawed and saying it would unfairly punish businesses and residents.
“[The government is] asking us to gamble our residents' jobs, homes and businesses and a large chunk of our economy on a strategy that their own experts tell them might not work," he said.
But the World Health Organisation says that restricting social gatherings is the right move in response to surging levels of infection across the Continent, where the virus is currently killing more than 1,000 people a day.
“They are appropriate and necessary responses to what the data is telling us: transmission and sources of contamination occur in homes and indoor public places, and within communities complying poorly with self-protection measures,” Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said in a briefing Thursday.
The good news, he noted, was that despite the higher number of confirmed infections in Europe than during the previous peak in April, the virus was currently resulting in significantly lower rates of hospital admission and death. That was partly due to increased testing capacity delivering a higher number of confirmed cases, greater transmission among younger and less vulnerable people, and improved ability for hospitals to treat serious cases.
“We are recording two to three times more cases per day compared with April, but five times fewer deaths, and hospital admissions are taking two to three times longer to double,” he said.
“The pandemic today is not the pandemic yesterday — not only in terms of its transmission dynamic, but in the ways we are now equipped to face it.”
However, that could change without effective steps to stop the spread of the virus, he said, warning that the daily death toll could become many times higher than during the April peak if infections continued to spike, and especially if it spread back into vulnerable communities like the elderly.
He said that forecasts showed that interventions like clamping down on social gatherings, and boosting the wearing of masks from the current 60 percent to near total compliance could save hundreds of thousands of lives over the next three months.
The unfolding crisis has cast a shadow on the European Council summit being held in Brussels, which has been marred by several coronavirus-related absences. On Friday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin left the summit after discovering she had potentially been infected earlier in the week while meeting with a Finnish MP who later tested positive.
Marin is the second leader to leave the summit under those circumstances, after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen departed on Thursday afternoon after finding out that a member of her staff had tested positive. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki didn’t make the trip, as he is self-isolating after coming into contact with an infected person.