German, Czech, Italian COVID-19 cases deepen Europe worries

BERLIN (AP) — Record daily infection figures in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland and elsewhere added to fears yesterday that Europe is running out of chances to control its latest coronavirus outbreak. France has set a 9pm curfew for many of its biggest cities as governments across the continent take increasingly tough action.

New infections have surged across Europe over recent weeks as the fall kicks in, prompting authorities in many places to start re-imposing restrictions relaxed over the summer. The Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Britain are among countries causing particular concern.

The head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe office urged countries to be “uncompromising” in controlling the virus.

Europe’s financial markets fell sharply on concerns that the new restrictions on swathes of the region’s economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its sharpest recession in modern history. Major stock indexes were well over two per cent lower in Europe yesterday.

While Germany, the European Union’s (EU) most populous nation, is still in comparatively good shape, alarm bells are ringing there too. Yesterday, the national disease control centre reported 6,638 cases over 24 hours — exceeding the previous record of nearly 6,300 set in late March, although testing in the country of 83 million has expanded greatly since then.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed on Wednesday night to tighten mask-wearing rules, make eateries close early and limit the number of people who can gather in areas where coronavirus infection rates are high. Merkel, who stressed the importance of keeping contact-tracing efforts on track, said, “We must stop this exponential rise, the quicker the better.”

Medical staff at a drive-through at the San Paolo hospital, in Milan, Italy. PHOTO: AP

Officials said that is still possible, but more efforts may be necessary.

“Yesterday’s decisions are an important step, but they probably won’t be enough,” Merkel’s Chief of Staff Helge Braun told ARD television. “So now it is up to the population that we don’t just look at ‘what am I allowed to do now’, but basically we must do more and be more cautious than what the governors decided yesterday.”

Merkel noted that neighbouring countries are having to take “very drastic measures”.

This week has seen the Netherlands close restaurants, and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland shut schools. The Czech Health Ministry said the country, with a population of over 10 million, confirmed 9,544 new cases on Wednesday, over 900 more than the days-old previous record.

The government said hospitals could reach full capacity by the end of October, and announced yesterday that the military will set up a hospital at Prague’s exhibition centre to treat COVID-19 patients.

“We have to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We have no time. The prognosis is not good.”

In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday night that 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, will have a 9pm curfew starting tomorrow until December 1.

Paris region’s Public Health Agency Director Aurelien Rousseau said nearly half of intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.

“It’s a kind of spring tide that affects everybody simultaneously,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our tracking policies. It was the private sphere, festive events.”

WHO’s Europe office head Dr Hans Kluge said most of the spread is happening in homes, indoor spaces and communities not complying with protection measures.

“These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course,” Kluge said.

“It is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of following the path of severity.”

Still, Paris restaurant, cinema and theatre owners are fuming at the new curfew rules. Tighter restrictions in northern England and Northern Ireland have prompted similar emotions there.

Just as Macron’s government tackles the resurgence of infections, French police yesterday searched the homes of the former prime minister, the current and former health ministers and other top officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It was triggered by dozens of complaints over recent months, particularly over shortages of masks and other equipment.

Belgium’s Ghent University said it will move to online education whenever possible starting October 26.

Italy, so far spared the worst of the second wave, on Wednesday also recorded its biggest single-day jump in infections since the start of the pandemic. It added another 7,332 cases amid a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.

Poland registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases yesterday. Masks have been required outdoors since Saturday and strict limits imposed on the size of gatherings.

Slovakia and Croatia announced record daily case numbers. Slovakia was imposing new restrictions yesterday, once again making it mandatory to wear masks outdoors and shutting fitness centres, public swimming pools, theatres and cinemas.

Sweden, which has chosen a much-debated approach of keeping large parts of society open, also raised the prospect of tougher restrictions.

“Too many don’t follow the rules,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said.

“If there is no correction here, we must take sharper measures.”

He did not specify what those measures might be.