LONDON - The coronavirus crisis deepened in Europe on Wednesday with a warning from Germany's leader that 70% of the country's population — 58 million people — could eventually be infected.
In Britain, junior health minister Nadine Dorries was diagnosed with the virus, as the total number of cases in the country jumped to over 450, the biggest single daily rise. It was reported that Dorries met hundreds of fellow lawmakers in Westminster last week, including attending a reception with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Italy remains the worst affected European country. The outbreak began in the country's north less than three weeks ago. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been infected, leaving several hundred dead, and prompting the government to put the whole country into lockdown. In Lombardy in Italy's north, doctors and nurses report that hospitals are overwhelmed, as they try to tackle the coronavirus outbreak alongside other health problems.
The economic impact on Italy will likely be brutal, with businesses shuttered, tourists staying away and consumers confined to their homes. From Venice and Milan in the north to Naples and Palermo in the south, the streets are eerily quiet. At night, the silence is occasionally punctuated by police vans using loudspeakers to broadcast health warnings and advice on preventing transmission.
Health experts say the COVID-19 outbreak in other European and North American countries may simply be a few days or weeks behind Italy and will likely follow a similar trajectory. So far, Britain has been more cautious in imposing restrictions on movement compared to other European states.
"Just because a lockdown is imposed, doesn't necessarily mean that that is the right thing to do," Dr. Jenny Harries, Britain's deputy chief medical officer, told reporters this week. "The timing of an intervention is absolutely critical. If you put it in too early, you have a time period, people get actually non-compliant. They won't want to keep it going for a long time."
Meanwhile, the Bank of England made an emergency interest rate cut Wednesday of 0.5%, hours before Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled the annual government budget.
Sunak has only been in the job for 27 days and has seen his initial task of energizing Britain's economy after Brexit morph into an emergency response to the coronavirus outbreak. He pledged $39 billion to help people and businesses through the crisis.
"Whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS (National Health Service)," Sunak told lawmakers Wednesday. "Second, during this immediate crisis, if people fall ill or can't work, we must support their finances. We will make sure that our safety net remains strong enough to fall back on."
Warning from Merkel
In Spain, Greece and the Czech Republic, universities and schools have been closed for at least two weeks. Cases of COVID-19 have been detected in every state in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel offered a stark warning to the population.
"You have to understand that if the virus is there, and the population has no immunity yet to this virus — there are no vaccines and no therapy so far — that a high percentage of experts say 60 to 70% of the population will be infected as long as this situation continues," Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin.
The COVID-19 virus that began in a corner of China has now spread across the world and is transforming the way hundreds of millions of people are able to go about their daily lives.
In Europe, as elsewhere, two key questions remain unanswered: How many people will die from the virus? And what will be the economic cost of trying to prevent its spread? Experts say it will be several months, or years, before the full global impact is known.