For weeks, European countries have tried to slow the spread of a second wave of coronavirus infections through targeted, localized restrictions aimed at avoiding the nationwide lockdowns imposed in the spring.
But with countries like France, Italy and Britain reporting their highest death toll in months, and Germany facing soaring cases this week, the authorities are now scrambling to reimpose drastic measures to curb a surge in infections and hospitalizations that could result in more deaths than during the first wave of the pandemic. The United States is also seeing a sweeping surge in cases, prompting local governments to tighten restrictions.
France was bracing on Wednesday for tightened coronavirus restrictions ahead of a speech by President Emmanuel Macron, which could range from extended nighttime or weekend curfews to a weekslong lockdown. France reported 523 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, the country’s highest such number since late April.
In Germany, amid record numbers of infections, Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to propose a plan to close restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and museums, while keeping schools, day care centers, stores and hairdressers open. The plan, labeled “lockdown light” by the German news media, would go into effect next week and would last through November.
According to the proposal, the rules, which like those in France would be less strict than those imposed in March, would be designed to limit the number of infections by Christmas so that friends and family could meet again.
“We know how to protect ourselves,” Ms. Merkel on Tuesday, warning that without acting accordingly, “we end up back in situations that are extremely difficult.”
The surging numbers reported across Europe this week suggest that efforts to avoid nationwide lockdowns did little to curb the spread of the pandemic.
In Britain, which reported 367 deaths on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced calls for a new national lockdown, as the government’s advisory body, known as SAGE, warned him that the second wave could be more deadly than the first, according to The Telegraph.
With over 61,000 coronavirus deaths, Britain has been the worst-hit country in Europe, with a surge in excess deaths that didn’t reach the peaks seen in Italy or Spain, but which lasted longer.
Spain has also weighed a new nationwide lockdown, with the Basque Country closing the region’s borders and the regional authorities in Madrid have considering a similar move. In Germany’s region of Bavaria, authorities have put two districts under strict lockdown, and in Italy, a curfew for bars and restaurants and the closure of public gyms, cinemas and swimming pools have led to anti-lockdown protests in Rome.
In France, business leaders have expressed fears that a new lockdown would be fatal to many companies, but doctors and medical experts say it is necessary.
Frédéric Valletoux, president of the French Hospital Federation said on Wednesday that hospitals were in a much more precarious situation than in the spring, with staff being exhausted from the first wave, less leeway to defer treatments or surgeries to make room for Covid-19 patients, and other epidemics like the flu coming with winter.
“Hospitals won’t hold if we don’t take drastic measures,” Mr. Valletoux said.
The European Union on Wednesday called for improved testing and for better coordination of what has been a patchwork of disparate measures in its member countries.
“We are deeply in the second wave now,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said at a news conference. “Our expectations are that these numbers will rise into the next few weeks, and they’ll increase rapidly.”
Apart from increasing testing, the commission urged member countries to share their coronavirus data in a more consistent way with the commission and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, as well as to make full use of tracing apps and restart communication campaigns with their citizens.
The commission will buy 100 million euros’ (about $118 million) worth of rapid antigen tests to be distributed among member countries based on their needs, and enable national governments to purchase more tests under a joint procurement procedure, Ms. von der Leyen announced.
“We’re dealing with two enemies: with the coronavirus itself and corona fatigue,” she said.