Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options
People wear protective face masks as they walk on Oxford Street in London, U.K.(Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

The drastic step that no European politician wanted to take again is back on the agenda: lockdown.

French President Emmanuel Macron -- whose government carefully avoided publicly discussing a national shutdown through a recent surge in coronavirus cases -- relented on Friday, acknowledging that the country could be heading back toward broader restrictions on movement.

Like other leaders in the region, Macron is running out of options. As officials from Dublin to Prague grapple with the resurgent pandemic, their efforts to limit the virus’s spread with softer measures -- from mandatory mask-wearing to partial curfews -- aren’t working.

For Italy’s Giuseppe Conte and Germany’s Angela Merkel, there are high political stakes. While they were lauded for how they managed the first wave, criticism is now growing. People are fed up, divisions between local and national governments are mounting, and if a prolonged lockdown is the ultimate answer, they will be blamed for wrecking economies.

“Many countries are now facing the spectre of shutdowns in the coming weeks,” Michael Ryan, director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, told reporters in a briefing late on Monday. “Getting ahead is one thing -- and Europe certainly got ahead of this virus in the late spring, early summer. The real question is, how do you stay ahead of this virus.”

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

The new coronavirus wave looks different from the first. Case numbers appear far higher, but increased testing is catching more. Meanwhile, the number of fatalities and patients requiring hospital care are much lower than in the spring, but rising worryingly now.

With health-care services gradually coming under strain, one blunt tool remains: shutter the economy and order people to stay home.

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

Having already had a lockdown imposed on them, many Europeans strongly oppose a second one. Protesters in cities including London, Naples and Berlin marched over the weekend against pandemic “tyranny.” In Italy, some gyms and cinemas said they won’t obey orders to close, and Conte is finalizing a new relief package to partially compensate businesses.

Even drastic measures won’t bring immediate relief. Despite calls for a strict two-week shutdown in the U.K., a look at data from the spring shows it took about four weeks for the March 23 stay-at-home order to start having an effect.

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

In France, the number of patients hospitalized kept climbing for almost a month after a national lockdown was implemented on March 17. After that, it ebbed only slowly.

“This is a dangerous moment for many countries in the northern hemisphere,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general at the WHO, told a health conference on Sunday. “But again and again, we have seen that taking the right actions quickly means the outbreak can be managed.”

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

Many governments are ready to embrace tougher measures. Belgium is mulling a lockdown. Poland and the Czech Republic -- the worst-hit country in Europe -- signaled more curbs may be near. Ireland shuttered its economy for six weeks.

German Chancellor Merkel aims to close restaurants and ban big events, according to local media. She’ll make the proposal when she discusses next steps with state leaders on Wednesday -- a meeting moved up by two days in a sign of the heightened urgency.

In Spain, the central government announced plans to hand the country’s regions sweeping powers to declare lockdowns, restrictions on movement and curfews. The move is intended to delegate some unpopular measures to local authorities and avoid pushback against national edicts, as happened earlier in the year.

Lockdowns Near as European Governments Run Out of Options

More vigorous local action to stem outbreaks at the source is a good idea, according to Azeem Majeed, a professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College in London.

“The government has been unwilling to release budgets and responsibility locally,” said Majeed. “They’ve preferred a more centralized model, which doesn’t work that well unfortunately.”

While more ventilators and other equipment have been secured, many hospitals appear less prepared to cope than during the initial wave -- partly because surgeries that were put on hold seven months ago can’t be delayed again and partly because more doctors and nurses are falling ill.

Meanwhile, systems that were designed to contain flare-ups are feeling the strain. Merkel’s chief of staff said Monday that 85% of German cases could no longer be traced back to the origin of the infection, meaning physicians have lost track of the contamination chain.

In Poland, as in other European nations, officials used strict lockdowns to contain the disease. They then declared victory, helping them mobilize elderly voters during a presidential ballot in the summer, which the incumbent narrowly won. Then the fight was largely abandoned.

“As the number of infected Poles started growing, people still believed that things were under control,” said Olgierd Annusewicz, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “That was the time when temporary hospitals should have been built, so we entered the second wave unprepared.”

Cases began surging across Europe as temperatures dipped. The SARS-CoV-2 virus survives longer in colder weather, increasing contagion risk. It’s possible social-distancing fatigue also played a role, and the lack of discipline could force authorities to take a hard line.

“Politicians have difficult decisions to make,” Jean-Francois Delfraissy, the lead doctor advising the French government on the pandemic, said in an interview on RTL radio on Monday. “This second wave is probably going to be worse than the first. It’s sweeping through all of Europe.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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