Europe tightens restrictions as virus hospitalisations rise

ATHENS, GREECE (AP) — Coronavirus cases hit new daily highs this week in Russia, and Germany and the United Kingdom (UK) announced plans to expand virus testing as European countries battled rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations.

Nations re-introduced restrictions to get ahead of a virus that has caused more than 1.2 million deaths around the globe, over 270,000 of them in Europe, according to Johns Hopkins University, and is straining healthcare systems.

New measures took effect on Tuesday in Austria, Greece and Sweden, following a partial shutdown imposed in Germany on Monday and tighter rules in Italy, France, Kosovo and Croatia. England faces a near-total lockdown, although schools and universities will stay open.

Infections spiked in Russia, where authorities reported 18,648 new cases on Tuesday. It was the fifth straight day of more than 18,000 confirmed cases, compared to the country’s daily record of over 11,000 in the spring.

Russia has the world’s fourth-highest reported coronavirus caseload with over 1.6 million people confirmed infected, including over 28,000 who died in the pandemic.

A health worker collects a nose swab sample for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. PHOTO: AP

The country lifted most virus-related restrictions this summer, and Russian officials said the healthcare system can cope. However, alarming reports have surfaced of overwhelmed hospitals, drug shortages and inundated medical workers.

Sweden, where the government skipped the lockdowns other nations adopted for a much-debated approach that kept much of society open, set new nationwide limits on restaurants and cafes, ordering them to serve only seated customers and with a maximum of eight per table. The Scandinavian country announced local restrictions in three more counties that include Sweden’s largest cities.

“We are going in the wrong direction. The situation is very serious,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “Now, every citizen needs to take responsibility. We know how dangerous this is.”

The country of 10 million people has 134,532 reported cases and nearly 6,000 deaths. Amid the gloom, a partial lockdown in the Netherlands appeared to be paying off; Dutch officials reported the number of new confirmed cases fell five per cent to 64,087 in the past seven days, the first decline in weeks.

The fall came three weeks after the government put the nation of 17 million on partial lockdown, including closing restaurants, halting amateur sports for adults and urging people to work from home.

Dutch authorities remain concerned the number of COVID-19 patients is putting an unbearable strain on hospitals, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced further restrictions on Tuesday night.

“It’s not going too bad but certainly not good enough. The infection numbers have to go down quicker,” Rutte said as he explained that the government was closing cinemas, theatres, swimming pools and museums for two weeks.

He warned that some regions could be placed under curfews if infection rates do not drop, and warned residents of the Netherlands not to travel abroad until mid-January.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte late Tuesday signed a decree putting more pandemic limits on the country, RAI state radio said. The government was poised to announce details soon. But earlier in the week, Conte said the stiffer measures would include an overnight, nationwide curfew.

Italy’s new decree would also ban people from entering or leaving the nation’s hardest-hit regions and shut down all non-essential shops in those places. Just which regions will be determined soon after health experts study the latest numbers on infections and hospital-bed capacity. In Britain, the government plans to offer regular COVID-19 testing to anyone living or working in Liverpool, a city of 500,000.

“These more advanced tests will help identify infectious individuals who are not displaying symptoms so they can self-isolate and prevent the virus from spreading,” the Department of Health said.

The trial in Liverpool, which has one of the highest infection rates in England with over 410 cases per 100,000 people, is seen as a test of how Britain might roll out mass testing nationwide.

Germany said it is bulk-buying millions of antigen tests, which produce rapid results, to avoid banning visitors to nursing homes and preventing the anguish to residents and their relatives that such isolation caused in the spring.

Nursing homes will receive up to 20 free monthly tests per resident, which can be used to test patients, staff members and visitors who might be unwitting virus carriers.

Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research Expert Melanie Brinkmann said no individual public health measure can slow the spread of the virus, but that together they are effective.

She likened actions such as social distancing, mask use, handwashing and widening the use of antigen tests to slices of Swiss cheese, which individually have holes but together form a solid block.

“The Swiss cheese model said that every slice of cheese has holes, imperfections,” Brinkmann said. The measures “are all new slices of the cheese that all have their imperfections, but if we stack them all together with one another, we can better protect ourselves from this virus”.

In neighbouring Austria, new restrictions that took effect on Tuesday allow restaurants to operate only for deliveries and takeout until the end of the month, and cancel cultural, sports and leisure activities.

Non-essential stores remain open, but residents were asked to stay home between 8pm and 6am.

Greece locked down its second-largest city, Thessaloniki, and the neighbouring northern province of Serres beginning Tuesday. Residents can only leave home for specific reasons after notifying authorities by text message. Lighter restrictions took effect in Athens, where restaurants, cafes, gyms, museums and entertainment venues shut down.

Domestic and international flights to Thessaloniki were cancelled and retail stores, restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues shut for two weeks. Primary schools and junior high schools remain open, but senior high school and university classes moved online.