Europe Hit With Tougher Virus Curbs Ahead of Vaccine Rollout
(Bloomberg) -- Europe is sharpening curbs on people and businesses to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus, risking another knock to battered economies even with the rollout of a vaccine tantalizingly close.
Governments across the region are desperately trying to check a fresh surge in infections as they dampen expectations that immunizations could soon defuse health risks. With months of pandemic fighting ahead, authorities are tightening measures without resorting to the strict curbs that triggered a collapse in business activity in the spring.
Following record daily cases and deaths on Friday, Germany is urging, but not requiring, employers to close workplaces as it starts a hard lockdown on Wednesday. The Netherlands is also sharpening restrictions and Italy is expected to follow suit.
The efforts come amid mounting concern that the imminent approval of a Covid-19 vaccine could prompt complacency with adhering to contact and hygiene rules. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for one more effort to protect loved ones as authorities warn that it will take months before a vaccine can have a tangible impact.
“The infection numbers are so high because the measures we took so far were inadequate,” Helge Braun, Merkel’s chief of staff, said Monday in an interview with n-tv. Europe’s largest economy will have to endure “difficult days” as long as a vaccine isn’t widely available, added Braun, a qualified medical doctor.
The U.K. is already rolling out a shot developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, and the U.S. could begin as early as Monday. The European Union though is lagging behind, favoring caution over speed. European Council President Charles Michel said Sunday he expects the first Covid vaccines to be approved “in the coming weeks, maybe even before the end of the year.”
Hard-pressed governments are keen to begin administering shots as soon as possible. German Health Minister Jens Spahn noted Sunday that “all the necessary data are available” and said the nation is ready to start vaccinating citizens immediately after approval is granted by the European Medicines Agency.
“It’s also about the trust of citizens in the ability of the European Union to act,” Spahn said on Twitter. “Every day that we can start vaccinating earlier reduces suffering and protects the most vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, infections continue to tick up across the region and governments are being forced to respond. German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier warned hospitals could overflow in coming weeks if the current trend continues.
Over the weekend, Italy overtook the U.K. as the European country with the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, adding to pressure on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s administration. Officials are considering new curbs, effectively walking back recent moves to allow more activity during the period, Corriere della Sera reported on Monday.
Irish medical authorities said Sunday they are concerned about rising infections. Ireland was the first the western European country to re-enter lockdown in late October, pushing case numbers down to around 250 a day. The shutdown was eased 10 days ago, and cases hit 429 on Sunday.
“We are not through this yet,” Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn said in a statement. “This virus doesn’t care that we have done well recently,” he said, adding that a vaccine “will not have any positive impact on the trajectory of this disease for months to come.”
The Dutch government on Monday announced a strict five-week lockdown in which it will follow Germany in closing non-essential stores. Publicly accessible spaces such as zoos, amusement parks and cinemas will also be shuttered, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a rare televised address.
“Everything is aimed at keeping the number of contacts to a minimum,” Rutte said.
Austria reported the first increase of its seven-day contagion rate in a month on Monday. The measure stood at 218 per 100,000, more than four times the government’s goal of 50.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had eased the country’s lockdown last week, reopening most stores and allowing most students to return to school. He said on Friday that a third wave in 2021 can’t be ruled out even as vaccines start to become available.
In Sweden, an intensive care unit in the nation’s third-biggest city has been gripped by an outbreak of Covid-19 that has already infected more than 40% of the staff, newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported Monday. The country is suffering from a shortage of specialist medical care and Stockholm’s ICU capacity usage hit 99% last week.
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