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COVID-19: parts of Europe cautiously relax restrictions, some more quickly than others

The past two weeks of the coronavirus pandemic have been characterised by cautious optimism, as many countries in Europe begin to carefully wind back some of the most stringent restrictions. As Italy and Spain began to move into the next phase of their pandemic control, the UK moved to number one position in Europe for COVID-19 related deaths, passing the grim milestone of 30,000.

Below is a summary of the latest developments in selected countries

Germany

Optimism continues to increase in Germany as Chancellor Merkel declared on Thursday May 7 that “the very first phase of the pandemic is behind us.” Following detailed negotiations with the 16 state presidents, she agreed to further relax lockdown restrictions, so long as the individual regions agreed to manage the process themselves and apply an ‘emergency brake’ if new hotspots of COVID-19 emerge. A hotspot will be declared if new infections rise to above 50 people in every 100,000 in a district over a seven-day period, at which point the local authority responsible would need to reimpose restrictions.

In this new phase, all shops in Germany can reopen, including those in large shopping centres. Two households will be able to meet and eat together, and elderly people in nursing homes and facilities for the disabled will be able to have visits from one specific person. Schools have already begun to reopen, and children of all ages will gradually be able to return over the summer term. One of the biggest headlines has been that the German Bundesliga football will now be able to restart, but with no fans in empty stadiums. The first matches will take place on Saturday May 16.

Despite having recorded more than 168,000 COVID-19 infections, Germany has one of the lowest death rates, with 7,275 deaths recorded up to May 7.

Netherlands

Like many European countries, the Netherlands has been in lockdown for almost two months. On May 6, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the country’s schedule for reopening. From May 11, primary schools will reopen with classes split and social distancing. Beauty salons and hairdressers can reopen by appointment only, and non-contact outdoor sports such as tennis will be permitted.

Cinemas, restaurants and cafes will be allowed to reopen for up to 30 people, but only if visitors are able to keep a distance of 1.5 meters (nearly 5 feet) from other customers. Public transport will resume normal schedules from June 1. However, only 40% of seats will be available to allow for social distancing, and the wearing of face masks will be compulsory. High schools will also reopen in June.

The Prime Minister has warned that restrictions could be rapidly re-imposed if there is a new surge in cases. But if they continue to fall, restrictions will continue to be eased in phases so that by September large gatherings such as concerts could be permitted, as well as the opening of gyms, saunas and casinos.

As of May 7, the Netherlands had reported 41,744 cases and 5,288 deaths due to COVID-19.

Hungary

Hungary has taken a 2-tiered approach to reopening because 70% of its cases have occurred in the capital, Budapest, where restrictions remain in force. Since May 4, small shops, museums, outdoor spaces of restaurants and hotels and beaches outside of Budapest have been able to reopen while maintaining social distancing.

Concerns have been raised regarding civil liberties in the country because Prime Minister Victor Orban is governing the COVID-19 crisis by emergency decree, with no end date, after the Hungarian Parliament voted to allow him to do so.

So far, Hungary has one of the lowest case totals across Europe, with 3,178 cases reported as of May 7, and 378 deaths.

Austria

As one of the first countries to exit lockdown (after being one of the first to enter it), much attention has focussed on Austria’s relaxation of restrictions, which began three weeks ago. The first part of lifting the restrictions involved opening home decorating stores and garden centres and shops of up to 400 square metres. The country’s health minister Rudolf Anschober declared on May 5 that this had not resulted in any spike in new infections.

The current data do not yet reflect the latest lifting of restrictions that took place on May 1, when hairdressers, other services and shops bigger than 400 square metres reopened. Further lifting of restrictions is planned, with restaurants, bars, museums and hotels all due to reopen this month.

The government has asked the public to remain vigilant and maintain social distancing rules and reminded them of the requirement to wear face masks or a fabric equivalent in shops, on public transport and in some government buildings.

As of May 7, Austria had reported 15,650 cases of COVID-19 and 608 deaths.

Belgium

Belgium has announced a 4-stage lifting of its lockdown, with different aspects planned for May 11, May 18 and June 8 after the first stage commenced on May 4, which allowed business-to-business contact, some non-contact sports, and small shops selling fabrics to reopen in order to assist the public in preparing facemasks. Belgians have also been allowed to select four family members or friends that can visit them at home (which they cannot change).

On May 18 classes will resume at school part-time for selected year groups, although kindergartens and nursery schools will stay closed until at least the end of May. The lifting of further restrictions in June depends on the progress made in the first few phases but could include restaurants (but not yet bars or nightclubs).

As of May 7, Belgium has confirmed 51,420 cases and 8,415 deaths related to COVID-19, giving it the highest death rate per capita worldwide. However, officials in the country say this is because they are counting deaths in a way that no other country in the world is currently doing, by including all deaths in hospitals and care homes, and also deaths in care homes that are suspected but no confirmed cases of the disease.

France

On May 7, French President Edouard Philippe outlined France’s strategy to begin easing restrictions. Most notably, the country has been divided into two zones – the so-called ‘green zone’ where new cases have fallen as hoped during the lockdown – and the red zone which includes much of Northern France and Paris. In these red areas, cases are not falling as fast as in the green zone. In these red regions, although some restrictions will be lifted, others will remain in place, including middle schools, parks and gardens all remaining closed.

In both red and green zones, primary schools and most businesses — though not cafes and restaurants — will be allowed to reopen as of May 11. In the green zones, Philippe said secondary schools, cafes and restaurants may open from early June if the infection rate remains low. Elderly and vulnerable populations, including those with underlying medical conditions, will not be confined to their homes after May 11. He said these people know who they are and will know to exercise extra caution.

Companies are being urged to allow employees to continue working from home if possible, and if not introduce shift working to avoid public transport congestion. Face masks will be compulsory on public transport for everyone aged 11 years or over from May 11. The government will operate public transport at 50% capacity initially, hoping to expand to full capacity in early June.

France has now recorded more than 137,000 cases of COVID-19 and 25,809 deaths associated with the infection.

Russia

Concerns are rising about the rapid acceleration of cases and deaths in Russia which is becoming a major hotspot of cases. As of May 7, Russia had recorded 177,160 cases, overtaking France and Germany to become the country with the 5th highest number of cases worldwide. This was a rise of 11,231 cases in just 24 hours, with many of the country’s officials worried the true number could be much higher. Russia has recorded 1,625 COVID-19 related deaths, but again this is considered by many to be a huge underestimate.

More than half of the official cases are in Moscow, but Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin says recent research has shown the true number of cases could be above 300,000 in the capital alone. Despite the surge in cases, Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved a plan by Sobyanin to cautiously lift some lockdown restrictions from May 11, to allow industry to begin operating again. Russia has now been locked down for six weeks.

UK

The UK has now moved into first place in Europe for numbers of COVID-19 deaths, with 30,615 deaths and more than 207,000 cases recorded as of May 7. Despite ministers saying that it is impossible to accurately compare one country with another, this is a position that no country wants to have. High levels of obesity and an older population have been suggested as possible contributors to the high death rate. NHS England and Public Health England are reviewing all deaths so far to determine the contribution of ethnicity, gender and obesity to a person’s risk of death.

The UK has been in a complete lockdown since March 23, which happened later than for many other countries. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce limited lifting to restrictions on Sunday May 10, mostly related to outdoor activity and exercise. Scotland, which has its own powers to act, has already said its lockdown will continue unchanged for the next three weeks, due to concerns its infection rate is slightly higher than the rest of the UK.

Boris Johnson’s focus on the pandemic has been put under strain by both bad and good news. Firstly, the news he himself had COVID-19 – he subsequently recovered after being in intensive care. Then he received the joyous news that his partner Carrie Symonds had given birth to their first son, Wilfred.

Spain

Spain has again extended its state of emergency, despite several opposition parties voting against the government plan to do so. The government has also set out its plan to allow individual regions to exit the lockdown in phases. And on Wednesday May 6, all regions of Spain except Catalonia and Castilla and Leon applied to move from phase 0 to phase I.

Residents must stay within their own province, but phase I allows businesses and street cafes to partially reopen, and for members of the public to meet in groups of 10 people or fewer, in open air or private residences. Street cafes can open at 50% of usual capacity, outdoor markets at 25%, and religious celebrations at 30%. Stores of 400 square meters or less can open at 30% of usual capacity.

The Madrid regional government has surprised some in Spain by requesting the move to phase I, despite being the most badly affected region in Spain. Within Catalonia, authorities decided to leave Barcelona, Girona and Lleida in phase 0 due to the moderate risk of further outbreaks.

Spain has so far recorded more than 221,000 cases of COVID-19 and 26,070 deaths.

Italy

Following 50 days of lockdown confinement that began in parts of the country’s north as far back as March 9, Italy began its cautious exit from lockdown on May 4. Some 4 million citizens were allowed to return to work, public spaces including parks were reopened, and markets were allowed to resume trading. Cafes, restaurants and ice-cream bars can open for take-away service, and citizens are now allowed to travel within their home region, however social distancing must be maintained to keep infection rates down.

A particular controversy has centred around the permission for religious masses, which were not included in the May 4 relaxation and will only be permitted from May 18. Churches and other religious institutions have been told they must manage social distancing and the size of congregations to allow people to keep apart and to hold an extra service if necessary rather than try to fit too many people into one service.

There have been protests across the country from business owners who fear for the future, including owners of bars, nightclubs, hairdressers and some other sectors that have been told they will not open before June 1.

Italy has so far reported more than 214,000 cases and 29,684 deaths related to COVID-19.

Sweden

Sweden has continued with its no lockdown policy, having only closed high schools and universities and moved their teaching online, and prohibited public gatherings of 50 people or more. Bars, restaurants, gyms, hairdressers and other businesses have been allowed to remain open.

Swedes continue to have high levels of trust in their Public Health Agency and chief virologist Anders Tegnell, and the vast majority of the population are maintaining strict social distancing measures through choice.

One area the government and the public health agency have admitted failures is in the protection of elderly people in care homes, a problem that has hit all countries. The latest data show that 90% of Sweden’s 3,000-plus COVID-19 related deaths have occurred in people aged 70 years and over, although it is not clear exactly how many of these deaths have occurred in a care home setting.

 

Denmark

Denmark has received widespread praise for its early and comprehensive lockdown. The rapid decrease in its infection rate has allowed it to be one of the first countries to begin relaxing restrictions. This began with primary schools and nurseries on April 14, followed by hairdressers and other small business on April 20.

From Monday May 11, the country will enter its second phase of lifting restrictions, allowing shopping malls, cafes and restaurants to reopen their doors. Older schoolchildren will be able to follow primary school children in returning to the classroom.  Health officials believe that the number of people in intensive care will remain below 100 well into the summer, even if restrictions are lifted further.

As of May 7, Denmark has reported 10,084 cases and 514 deaths related to COVID-19.

Brazil 

The coronavirus epidemic is tightening its grip on South America, with major concerns continuing to focus on Brazil and the pronouncements by President Jair Bolsonaro, who continues to clash with state governors nationwide. On Sunday May 3, he made yet another public appearance in which he mixed and had physical contact with members of the public, in defiance of public health advice to maintain social distancing. At another event when he was told the number of deaths in Brazil had overtaken China, he said: “so what, what do you want me to do?”

Although much attention has focused on Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, major cities that were expected to be hotspots, things are rapidly accelerating out of control in other regions. On Tuesday May 5, São Luís, the capital of the north-eastern state of Maranhão, and three nearby towns went into a strict lockdown for 10 days. This was ordered by a judge after intensive care beds in the few public hospitals filled up. Fortaleza, capital of neighbouring Ceará state, will also introduce an enforced lockdown from today, May 8.

Brazil has now reported more than 106,000 cases of COVID-19 and 8,609 deaths.