Western European states are scrambling to curb a second coronavirus wave of infections by re-imposing pandemic restrictions lifted just weeks or months ago. But their governments say they are determined to avoid further stressing their stricken economics by re-introducing national lockdowns.
The big question is whether this will be possible.
From Britain, which has banned social gatherings of more than six and is threatening punitive fines for transgressors, to Spain, where Madrid is now under lockdown, authorities are struggling to contain alarming second-wave surges while keeping schools open and encouraging people still to head to work.
Officials in European capitals say it will ultimately be in the hands of public, if lockdowns are necessary. They hope better adherence to social distancing rules and more conscientious mask-wearing will help reverse infection surges — or at least slow them.
“If we want to avoid national measures and more action we can, but we can only do that if everybody follows the rules,” Britain’s health minister Matt Hancock said.
A national lockdown could be prevented if the “significant minority” of rule-breakers changed behavior. He urged people to report anyone breaching isolation orders or the rule of six, warning police would “come down hard on people who do the wrong thing.”
The snitching appeal has prompted an outcry from some quarters with critics saying it would turn Britain into a nation of score-settling busybodies.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of the devolved government, said last week, “No-one wants to see another full-scale lockdown. And above all we want to keep schools and childcare open because we know how important that is to the education and to the broader wellbeing of children and young people.”
But she added: “The bottom line here is this virus is on the rise again. Cases are rising quite rapidly.”
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said at a Downing Street news conference Monday that Britain was fast approaching a tipping point, warning that without tough measures the country could be seeing 50,000 new cases a day.
England’s chief medical officer, Christopher Whitty outlined the dilemma the British government is facing, much as European neighbors. “If we do too little this virus will get out of control. If we go too far it will impact and damage the economy.”
He urged everyone to observe the regulations just a day after thousands ignored the rules and crowded the seaside resort town of Blackpool. “You cannot in an epidemic just take your own risk, unfortunately you are taking a risk on behalf of everybody else, it’s important we see this as something we do collectively,” Whitty said.
New infection highs
Britain is seeing daily infections rise to four-month highs, and cases might be doubling every day, according to health officials. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to make a nationwide television address Tuesday to announce a further tightening of restrictions on ordinary life. The British government is set to introduce fines of up to $13,000 for people who breach self-isolation rules.
The government’s scientific advisers have been advising Johnson to act more quickly than he did in March and have been urging an immediate two-week “circuit breaker” of a national lockdown just to help interrupt the pandemic and reduce hospital admissions.
But Johnson has come under pressure from finance ministers and business to ignore the circuit-breaker idea. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, reportedly has warned Johnson that a further national shutdown of the hospitality and leisure industry would be devastating to the economy.
Pub and restaurant owners say the hospitality industry is now in existential crisis, with almost a million jobs at risk.
A nighttime curfew aimed at discouraging partying is among the options Johnson is considering, a Downing Street official confirmed to VOA.
Opponents of stringent new measures include much of the British press. Most newspapers say the country cannot afford a second national lockdown.
“The one thing that we cannot afford to do is to shut up shop again,” according to the influential newspaper The Times. It says targeted measures have an important role to play. “When the government introduced national restrictions in March, it did not have a system in place for dealing with smaller flare-ups. Now that it does, it should do as much as it can locally and regionally,” the paper concluded.
But a simultaneous series of regional lockdowns could soon mean the country is itself locked down in all but name, say some commentators. More than ten million people are under lockdowns in parts of northern England already — and London might have to be put under a lockdown within days or weeks, according to the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan.
French officials, too, are struggling with how to balance public health needs without further crippling the country’s damaged economy.
A regional and local approach is also being adopted. In Nice, officials have banned gatherings of more than 10 people in public spaces and reduced opening hours for bars. New restrictions have also been imposed in the cities of Bordeaux and Marseilles.
France reported 13,498 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Saturday, setting another record in daily additional infections since the start of the epidemic in March. The new cases pushed the cumulative total to 442,194 as the seven-day moving average of daily new infections rose to more than 9,700, compared with a low of 272 at the end of May, two weeks after the lockdown was lifted.
As with most of their western European counterparts, French officials say a sharp increase in the number of tests being conducted is partly behind the surge in numbers, but they add the virus is circulating much faster, too.
Most of the recent surge was seen among younger people but the spikes are now being seen among the middle-aged and elderly — a pattern France’s neighbors are seeing.
Some officials are hopeful the second wave of the coronavirus is likely to be less deadly as the first. Treatments have been refined and there is more understanding of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. People are more wary, despite rule-breakers, and the elderly are aware they need to shield at home. Governments in most western European states are also now more vigilant about nursing homes and have been increasing testing in them.
Some infectious disease experts argue mutant strains are more contagious, but causing less serious illnesses. The chief of a French research hospital, microbiologist Didier Raoult, the director of IHU Méditerranée Infection in Marseilles, told French senators last week: “They are less severe, so something is happening with this virus, which makes it different. The mutations we have a rather degraded version of the initial form. At least that is our impression.”
Other infectious disease experts disagree with Raoult, who was immersed in controversy earlier this year when he claimed hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, could be used to cure COVID-19. He was widely criticized for insisting that a small trial he conducted of the drug proved its effectiveness.
Raoult is not alone in arguing the coronavirus has changed and is less deadly. The Italian doctor who oversaw the treatment of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during his recent hospitalization in Milan for COVID-19 has also expressed a similar view about the changing nature and less aggressive of the virus. But Italy’s public health officials say there’s little supporting evidence to show that is the case.
German officials are watching nervously the pandemic developments unfolding in neighboring countries. Germany has seen a rise in cases, recording 2,297 new infections of coronavirus on Saturday, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the country's disease control and prevention agency. That's the highest number of new daily infections since the end of April.
But the surge is not on the same scale as other Western European countries. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Monday that Germany will sooner or later see imported cases from Spain, Austria and the Netherlands. Countries like Spain have infection dynamics that are out of control, Spahn told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.