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Covid-19: some European countries ease restrictions, others extend full lockdown

There have been positive signs from most European countries that their peaks of Covid-19 cases and deaths may have passed. Despite this, many countries including the UK, Spain and France have extended their lockdown measures into May. Others, such as Denmark, Austria and the Czech Republic, have begun to ease their restrictions, while one outlying nation – Sweden – is yet to impose any kind of strict lockdown at all. Below is a summary of the main developments in selected countries.

Sweden

Alone among European countries, Sweden’s bars and restaurants remain open and fairly busy as Spring progresses. The country’s public health agency has faced strong criticism from some Swedish scientists for not recommending stricter lockdown measures. Only mass gatherings of more than 50 people have been banned, and the government has emphasised an individual responsibility approach, saying that voluntary social distances are a better long-term strategy since the public will accept them for longer.

As of April 24, there have been more than 17,000 cases and 2,100 deaths in Sweden, higher case rates and death rates than neighbouring Norway, Finland and Demark. Yet nor is Sweden in the worst position in Europe. Scientists are currently trying to establish how much of the population has been infected, with suggestions that up to a third of the population have already had Covid-19 in the Stockholm area. All countries worldwide are watching Sweden with interest. If a substantial drop in infections and deaths occurs in the coming weeks, the nation will feel its more liberal approach has been vindicated.

Italy

With 437 new deaths reported on April 22, Italy passed the grim milestone of 25,000 deaths associated with Covid-19. However, for the third day in a row, the total number of people currently infected with the virus fell, as did the total numbers of patients in intensive care nationwide. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said some businesses will be allowed to open from May 4, but many others, including cafes and restaurants, will remain closed.

As with other countries, there are concerns that Italy’s real number of Covid-19 related deaths could be significantly higher. Excess mortality data compiled by the New York Times and The Economist shows that the death toll in Italy’s worst affected region of Lombardy could be double what has been reported. Between March 1 and April 4, the region recorded 12,802 deaths more than usual for that period; yet only 6,132 were attributed to coronavirus. This means there are an additional 6,670 deaths as yet unexplained, most of them also likely to be due to Covid-19.

UK

The UK is steadily approaching 140,000 infections and 20,000 deaths due to Covid-19, however, the UK only reports hospital deaths. There have been mounting concerns about the situation in UK residential homes for the elderly, with many reporting multiple deaths, staffing problems, and a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). Many care home managers have appeared on national television news, saying they and their staff feel forgotten as a priority for PPE is given to the UK’s hospitals.  Yet some hospitals have also struggled to obtain enough PPE, with fears that some will run out of face masks and gowns and have to reuse some equipment. The agency Public Health England has been criticised for changing its guidance to allow reusing of PPE in certain circumstances.

The UK is also suffering a crisis in leadership as Prime Minister Boris Johnson recovers from his own Covid-19 infection. Other senior government ministers are not agreeing about when lockdown restrictions should be lifted. Some believe it should be sooner, to protect the economy from critical damage, while others including the Health Secretary believe the country should be super-cautious in lifting any restrictions.

Germany

On Friday, April 17, the German health minister, Jens Spahn, announced the virus was under control, thanks to the country’s intensive testing and isolation policy adopted from the earliest part of the epidemic.  “The infection numbers have sunk significantly, especially the relative day-by-day increase,” he said. As of April 24, Germany has reported around 153,000 cases and 5,575 deaths.

Since April 20, lockdown restrictions have been eased, with commercial spaces under 800 square metres able to reopen their doors, along with car dealerships, bike shops and book stores. However, gyms, restaurants, bars and large stores remain closed. On April 22, all of Germany’s states announced plans to make face masks compulsory to combat the spread of the virus. Mask use will be compulsory on public transport throughout Germany, and nearly all states will also make face coverings mandatory when shopping.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged that the nation be super-cautious in celebrating any success or easing restrictions further. She had told the German Parliament the nation is “still at the beginning” and has warned her country: “We will be living with this virus for a long time.”

Denmark

Denmark has become one of the first high-income countries to ease restrictions, allowing schools for young children to open on 15 April and this week, golf and tennis clubs are set to reopen nationwide after two of the country’s biggest sporting associations announced that outdoor sports with no physical contact can resume again (having agreed guidelines with the health ministry).

Beauty salons, hairdressers and tattoo parlours have been allowed to reopen this week. However, social distancing measures remain in place and gatherings of more than 10 people remain banned. In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen wrote: “No-one wants to keep Denmark closed a day more than is absolutely necessary. But we mustn’t go ahead faster than we are able to keep the epidemic under control.”

The country’s early action has meant that there have been 8,210 cases and just 403 deaths, far fewer than most of its neighbours.

Spain

There has been a total of 22,524 official COVID-19-related fatalities in Spain, with confirmed infections now reaching more than 220,000.  Although some people have been allowed to return to work, Spain’s lockdown remains one of the strictest in Europe and will go on until May 9 at the earliest.

In one small allowance by the government, from Sunday, April 26, children aged 14 and under will be able to go outside once per day between 9 am and 9 pm with an adult, within a 1km radius of their homes. Politicians and the public have called for children to be given this permission since they have been kept indoors since March 14 when Spain locked down.

Along with some other countries, Spain is beginning a serological survey to discover what proportion of its population has been infected.

France

Still one of the most badly affected countries, France is planning to ease some of its lockdown restrictions. The government has made clear that any easing of restrictions will be done nationally, rather than region by region. Primary school children are due to head back to school on May 11, and older schoolchildren one week later on May 18. Classes will be restricted to 15 children or less. However, many parents are publicly objecting to this and saying they will keep their children at home.

France is grappling with a shortage of some personal protective equipment, such as facemasks, but will soon be producing 17 million washable, reusable fabric masks per week, with millions more ordered from abroad. President Macron has also announced that by mid-May, France would be able to test anyone presenting coronavirus symptoms and give non-surgical face masks to the public.

As of April 24, France has reported more than 121,000 cases of Covid-19 and 21,546 deaths. However, the number of patients hospitalised with the infection has fallen for nine consecutive days.

Belgium

As of April 24, Belgium has reported 44,293 cases and 6,679 deaths. However, its Coronavirus Crisis Centre team has made clear that the nation’s daily death count includes not only confirmed cases but also the suspected cases. Thus Belgium’s mortality can appear high when compared to other countries. Another method for measuring Covid-19 deaths – the nation’s excess mortality – has also risen sharply from its usual background rate of 300 deaths per day since mid-March.

Belgian experts also announced this week that they believe they passed the peak of coronavirus cases on April 12 and that they will announce a package of measures to ease the lockdown today, Friday, April 24. It is thought the measures will include allowing smaller shops to reopen, a return to school from 18 May, and some social gatherings and outdoor activities allowed from 3 May.

USA

The United States continues to hurtle towards 1 million coronavirus cases and has now recorded more than 50,000 Covid-19 related deaths. The suggestion by President Donald Trump that the country might only experience 60,000 Covid-19 related deaths now looks somewhat optimistic. However, social distancing measures across most states have dragged down new daily infections from their peak of over 35,000 to below 30,000.

Some states have already begun to ease their lockdowns. Oklahoma is the latest state to announce a reopening of its economy, which has been battered by restrictions. It will open hair and nail salons, barbershops, pet groomers and spas this week, followed by restaurants and movie theatres in the next 10 days. Oklahoma now joins Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas as states beginning to restart their economies.

Having had significant tensions with one of his senior advisors, Dr Anthony Fauci, Trump is now having issues with the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, for comments he made that the US could face a second more serious wave of coronavirus infections when the influenza season begins this winter. In an awkward press conference, Trump asks Redfield to explain that he had been misquoted by The Washington Post, but Redfield was forced to admit he had been quoted correctly, risking the wrath of Trump.

Meanwhile, in New York, a study to test antibodies to the virus in the population suggests that 14% of the population in New York State, and 21% in New York City, have already been infected by the novel coronavirus. Deaths across the state are now above 21,000, but the daily death toll is now on a downward trend.

Tony Kirby

 

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