LONDON/BERLIN (Reuters) – Europe began counting the cost of sweeping restrictions on social life imposed to contain a surge in coronavirus infections while Britain continued to hold out against following Germany and France in ordering a second lockdown.
As the pandemic raced ahead across the continent, Europe has moved back to being an epicentre of the global pandemic, facing the prospect of a prolonged economic slump alongside a public health crisis which has so far seen more than 44 million infections and 1.1 million deaths worldwide.
“The total number of confirmed cases has moved from 7 to 9 million in just 14 days, and, today, Europe exceeded the 10-million-case milestone,” Hans Kluge, regional director for Europe at the World Health Organization (WHO), told an emergency meeting of European health ministers on Thursday.
Deaths from COVID-19 rose by 32% across the region last week, he said.
But modeling shows that systematic wearing of masks – at a rate of 95% – may save up to 266,000 lives by Feb. 1 across WHO’s 53 European member states, Kluge said.
France and Germany have imposed controls almost as strict as the lockdowns of the first phase of the crisis in March and April, shutting bars and restaurants and restricting movement, while allowing schools and most businesses to remain open.
But Britain, the country with the largest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, said it would stick with a system of local lockdowns despite a new study which showed cases in England doubling every nine days.
“The judgement of the government today is that a blanket national lockdown is not appropriate, would do more harm than good,” Housing Minister Robert Jenrick told Times Radio.
Germany has set aside some 10 billion euros ($11.82 billion) to help small businesses hit by the new measures but Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said the country was not experiencing an industrial collapse as it did in the initial phase of the pandemic.
“(The economy) is so strong that we can avoid sliding into a long period of recession,” he said. He added output would not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2022, however.
Separately, Bank of France Governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau said the drop in gross domestic product (GDP) expected at the end of the year should be less severe than in first half of the year after the initial lockdown.
Financial markets steadied somewhat on Thursday following a brutal selloff a day before as the latest restrictions snuffed out faint signs of recovery seen over the summer and pointed to further economic pain at the end of the year.
The European Central Bank, which has been propping up the economy through its 1.35 trillion euro ($1.60 trillion) Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, said it was ready to offer additional support.
Governments have been desperate to avoid a repeat of the spring lockdowns but have been forced to move by the speed of new infections and a steadily increasing mortality rate across the continent as winter approaches.
Even the well-equipped health systems of countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have been pushed close to their limits by the exponential surge in cases recorded this month.
On Thursday, Sweden, which alone among European countries never imposed a lockdown, reported its third record increase in cases in a matter of days.
“We’re beginning to approach the ceiling for what the healthcare system can handle,” Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told a news conference, calling for a joint effort to curb the spread of the virus.
‘WINTER WILL BE HARD’
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government had moved quickly to prevent intensive care facilities being overwhelmed and called for a joint effort to face the crisis.
“We are in a dramatic situation at the start of the cold season. It affects us all, without exception,” Merkel told the Bundestag lower house of parliament, adding new restrictions to reduce social contact were “necessary and proportionate”.
Warning of difficult months ahead, she said: “The winter will be hard.”
While Paris and Berlin hope month-long lockdowns will be enough to slow the spread of the disease, there was little certainty about whether they would be enough for a return to even near-normality.
“We want to do everything so that French people can be with their families and their friends for the festivities at the end of the year,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said. “Will it be the same? Possibly not.”
While the latest restrictions have put a spotlight on Europe, the United States has also seen a surge in new coronavirus cases in the run-up to next week’s presidential election, with more than 80,000 new cases and 1,000 deaths reported on Wednesday.
“We are on a very difficult trajectory. We’re going in the wrong direction,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, task force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
By contrast, many Asian countries have begun to relax controls as the disease has been brought under control, with Singapore announcing it would ease restrictions for visitors from mainland China and the Australian state of Victoria.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Nick Macfie and Tom Brown)