As UK government prepares for new lockdowns, Europe too is struggling.
Restaurant and bar workers held a “funeral’ for their trade-in Paris.
Just as UK government was hoping it could put COVID to rest, the virus has risen again, with renewed venom. Case numbers have been rising and in their wake, hospital admissions too. Europe too is struggling.
Each country is trying to find the right combination of measures – local lockdowns, test-and-trace initiatives, economic support and public communication – to drive down numbers as winter approaches. As the UK government prepares to unveil a range of new lockdown rules, BBC reporters from France, Germany and other European capitals explain how their countries are managing.
Deaths 32,521 | Death rate 50 per 100,000 people | Total cases 671,638
Warning lights are flashing in French cities as the long-anticipated autumn surge starts to make itself felt, writes Hugh Schofield, in Paris.
All key indicators give cause for concern. Roughly 18,000 new cases are being detected each day. The number of cases is 116 per 100,000 people and also rising. According to doctors, the main vector is young people resuming social lives post-lockdown and then passing the virus on.
However, there is a change from the first wave in March/April because this time, thanks to testing, the big regional and city/countryside variations are clear to see. Increasingly the epidemic is seen as an urban phenomenon. This means that the government’s response is not – and is unlikely ever to be – another national lockdown.
Instead, the health authorities have devised a complex system of regional alert levels. About two-thirds of the country is now in a red zone, meaning the virus there is spreading and they are struggling.
With each level, new restrictions kick in. For example in Paris, on maximum alert along with five other cities, bars are now shut.
At the lowest alert level, gatherings are limited to 30; at the higher levels, the limit is 10. In addition, government representatives in the regions have discretionary powers to order other measures – such as the compulsory wearing of masks in Paris.
Like in other countries, France’s mantra is tested, trace, isolate. The number of daily tests is now about 175,000. There is already a nationwide network of independent laboratories which have become testing sites, though others have been set up by town halls. When I got tested after developing symptoms in September, it took just a day to arrange the test and another day for the result (negative). However, by general admission, the contact tracing system is not functioning as it should be. Simply put, there are too many cases and the government is recruiting an extra 2,000 extra staff.
In keeping with its reputation, France claims to have the most generous state help to individuals and businesses that are suffering from COVID. People who are isolating can claim sick benefit in the normal way. If a child needs home care because of an outbreak at school, a parent can stay at home and go on furlough. Furlough has been offered to 1.3 million workers so far. The scheme, under which companies can be reimbursed 85% of a person’s salary, has now been extended into the new year.
If it is all very French, it is what people expect – not that they show huge confidence in the way the epidemic is being handled.
A poll by Elabe this week suggested only 35% of people trusted the government to “fight effectively against COVID”. Some 73% said they were “personally worried” about the virus – an increase of four points in a week.
Deaths 906 | Death rate 8.5 per 100,000 people | Total cases 109,374
If seven days is a long time in politics, how long are seven months in a pandemic? To most here, it feels like an age, writes Rob Cameron, in Prague.
Back in March, the Czech Republic was feted for its rapid response to COVID, shutting its borders and swiftly locking down most of the economy. People were told to stay at home where possible. Masks were made compulsory indoors and out. Most respected the measures with good grace and humour.
By the end of June, an infamous dinner party was held on Prague’s Charles Bridge to celebrate the end of “this difficult period of the coronavirus crisis” (although not to declare the virus itself vanquished, as is sometimes wrongly claimed). At that time, the country of 10.7 million was seeing 150 cases a day and had recorded 347 deaths in just over three months.
The sun shone. Holidays were booked. Masks and other restrictions were gleefully abandoned.
Today, the Czech Republic has both the highest and the fastest-growing daily number of new cases in Europe, with figures almost double those in the UK. The ratio of positive cases to tests stands at 30% – a number that terrifies epidemiologists.
The total death toll now stands at more than 800, but will almost certainly pass 1,000 by next week.
Officials warn the country’s hospitals could soon become overwhelmed.
The track-and-trace system has struggled to keep up. Authorities are taking days – sometimes 14 – to contact people who might have come into contact with an infected person. Its helplines are permanently engaged.
“A difficult period lies ahead of us. We will need all hands on deck,” Health Minister Roman Prymula, himself an epidemiologist, told a televised news briefing. Standing next to him on the podium was Prime Minister Andrej Babis, the man whom many Czechs blame for the current crisis. It was Mr Babis – it is widely believed – who vetoed a plan to re-introduce regulations on masks. In the end, the numbers began their inexorable climb to their current peak, and new measures are being introduced anyway.
They were too little, too late.
The PM has warned that a new lockdown cannot be ruled out and urged people to stay at home for the weekend.
Czechs, meanwhile, are trying to grapple with the myriad new rules and regulations coming into force on Monday. Pubs, restaurants and bars will only be able to seat a maximum of four people at one table and must close at 20:00. Wi-fi will be switched off in shopping centres to put off young people from gathering. Only groups of two will be able to enter shops or shopping centres together, and children aged 12-15 will take turns doing online teaching on a class-by-class basis, to keep classes from mixing in schools.
Some scientists say the Czech numbers in March were so low it was wrong even to call it an epidemic. That, sadly, is no longer the case.
- GLOBAL VIEW: Tracking the outbreak’s spread
- EUROPE RULES: Country by country
- TESTING: How much do other countries do?
Deaths 9,609 | Death rate 11.6 per 100,000 people | Total cases 320,899
Germany is widely held up as a model of how to manage COVID in Europe, but there is a nervousness in the air as the weather gets colder, writes Damian McGuinness in Berlin.
So far it has fared comparatively well. Total deaths are below 10,000 – less than a quarter the UK total, in a population significantly larger. But infections, which had remained low over the summer, have started to surge. The latest daily rate is almost 5,000 – a high not seen since April.
This is still low compared with other big European countries. And so far, Germany’s track-and-trace system has held up well, but it has its limits. As infections rise, the system will start to struggle. This has already happened in Berlin, Frankfurt and Bremen. Other urban centres are also seeing a sudden rise in infection rates.
And while it’s mostly young people now, the fear is that the virus will find its way into the older, more vulnerable population.
Which is why on Friday afternoon Chancellor Angela Merkel had a video conference with the mayors of Germany’s 11 biggest cities to decide new stricter measures.
“Now is the time that we will determine in what shape Germany will get through the pandemic this winter,” Mrs Merkel said.
This weekend some cities, including Berlin, are introducing a 23:00 closing time for bars, cafes and restaurants. Limits on numbers of people allowed to meet are also being brought back. Mrs Merkel will meet mayors again in two weeks, and if infection rates haven’t fallen, tougher measures will be introduced.
The lockdown in Germany was milder than in other countries — there were never restrictions on going outside, for example. It was also shorter, meaning that businesses suffered less of a hit. Mask-wearing has become ubiquitous, so there have been few outbreaks on transport, in shops, or at other services such as hairdressers.
Polling shows that most people support the government’s measures. It’s rare to see anyone flouting the rules about wearing face-coverings in shops or on public transport. Mrs Merkel’s personal ratings are the highest of any politician. Unemployment rates have only increased by one percentage point since March. In September, the jobless figure even went down slightly.
But Germany would struggle to afford another lockdown — particularly with such generous state support. And unlike the UK, where furlough payments have tapered off in recent months, in Germany, they increase the longer someone can’t work, or is forced to take a salary cut, because of COVID. 67% of the salary paid to workers with kids for the first three months rises to 87% after six months, and the scheme is set to run until the end of 2021.
Deaths 6,546 | Death rate 38.4 per 100,000 people | Total cases 161,929
“Very bad” was Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s assessment on Friday of how his country is faring, writes Anna Holligan, in The Hague. An understatement perhaps, given the Netherlands has one of the worst infection rates – almost 6,000 new cases recorded on Thursday.
Like the UK, the second wave came sooner than many expected. Rules had been relaxed over the summer. There was an impression the Netherlands had beaten the virus.
Tests are in short supply, as are the staff to do them. The country can handle 17,500 a day but that means not everyone with symptoms can be tested. There is a joke that the government is adopting Dutch GP’s usual advice: “Take paracetamol.”
This weekend a long-awaited contact tracing app was due to go live. Most bars and restaurants already have registers for customers to leave their details, but few do. Where health authorities do have people’s details, they have often been unable to cope and so contacts have gone untraced.
In March, the Netherlands implemented a self-titled “intelligent lockdown”, so life could continue while limiting the spread of the virus. More recently, people have been advised to wear masks in all enclosed public spaces. But introducing mask rules in two stages appears to have affected compliance. Mask-wearers remain in the minority. Looking in shops as I cycled down my local high street in The Hague, no-one was wearing a mask.
There has been a huge economic support package, covering up to 90% of wages. Business owners can apply for a “gift” of 1,000 euros (£906) a month. But the government focus now is on encouraging people to adapt to “the new economic reality”.
Chaotic and shambolic are words not often used to describe the Dutch, but increasingly they are how critics have characterised Mr Rutte’s handling of the outbreak. Public approval has crumbled. According to the latest polls, support for the government’s approach has dipped from 75% to 65%. Some 66% said ministers should be introducing tougher measures.
If there’s no downturn in new cases over this weekend, the prime minister has warned tougher measures are unavoidable.
Deaths 32,929 | Death rate 70.5 per 100,000 people | Total cases 861,112
Spain started to see infections rise again almost as soon as its strict national lockdown was lifted at the end of June. There have been constant new outbreaks since then, and the government now accepts that a second wave is hitting the country, writes Guy Hedgecoe in Madrid.
There are currently more than 10,000 patients in hospital with the virus. Spain has had the highest number of cases in Europe so far and last week registered another 57,247.
Testing capacity has increased since the peak of the first wave, to about 50,000 tests a day. But the numbers of tests available can vary a great deal from one region to another and there are concerns that this has contributed to Spain’s difficulties in managing the pandemic.
There are no figures showing the total number of tracers at work in Spain. The health ministry has a tracing app, Radar COVID, but fewer than 10% of Spaniards have it on their phones.
The government recently extended a furlough scheme for businesses until the end of January. It allows companies to send workers home or reduce their hours, maintaining unemployment benefits at 70% for those not working.
Although infections have been rising in almost all areas of the country since the summer, some regions have been particularly hard hit. In July and August, the north-eastern regions of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Aragón saw a sharp spike in cases and, more recently, the Madrid region has become the biggest source of new infections.
The authorities have been introducing local restrictions to tackle outbreaks. In some cases, rules are introduced across a whole region, such as the closure of nightclubs in Catalonia. In other cases, movements are restricted in a town or village and locals are urged to stay at home.
Face masks are obligatory in all public places for anyone over the age of six, with some exceptions, and it is unusual to see people flouting that rule on the streets of a city, for example.
But while Spaniards have generally obeyed these restrictions, there have been growing clashes between the national and regional governments, reflecting Spain’s deeply polarised politics. The national government has forced through restrictions in Madrid and several surrounding cities, despite strong opposition from the regional administration.
People’s views on the government’s handling of the pandemic tend to reflect this divide and be fairly evenly split – a recent study by the National Statistics Institute (INE) showed that 57% of Spaniards had little or no confidence in the government’s response to the crisis.
Deaths 27 | Death rate 0.5 per 100,000 people | Total cases 57,866
Singapore has so far avoided the second spikes seen in Europe, writes Karishma Vaswani.
As well as the test, trace and isolate doctrine of other countries, Singapore’s mandatory mask-wearing, strict penalties for rule-breaking, and technological tools like a “trace together” token, have helped control the virus.
The token, which can be worn on a lanyard, uses Bluetooth to look for other users’ devices. It tells you if you’ve been in contact with someone who has been infected – so you can isolate yourself.
Singapore was the first country in the world to have a contact-tracing phone app, but the token is seen as more reliable. Initially, it was targeted at the elderly – who may not have smartphones – and young. But now everyone’s being encouraged to get one.
SILVER GENERATION OFFICE (SGO)
The city-state, with a population of 5.6 million, was quick to react at the start of the pandemic, after the first round of infections sparked by tourists from Wuhan in China. Through a meticulous contact tracing and quarantine programme, numbers were kept low. As early as March, it was seen to have beaten the virus and earned the “gold standard” moniker for its efforts. Lockdown had been avoided.
But a mass outbreak in the dormitories of low-paid migrant workers dashed those hopes. In April, Singapore went into lockdown for almost two months, costing the economy US$10bn per month in losses, according to some analysts.
Six months on, things appear to have been brought under control. But officials are more modest now about their success.
The majority of those with COVID are being housed in community isolation facilities – rather than hospitals. These are dedicated to people who aren’t severely ill so don’t need to be in the hospital.
Key to this strategy is the opening up the economy – and ensuring that trade-dependent, open-bordered Singapore can bounce back when international travel starts again. The economy is slowly restarting, and the plan is to move into the next phase of its recovery programme, by allowing more people to meet at conferences and weddings.
Still, businesses have suffered. To help them Singapore has doled out almost $70bn in wage subsidies, loans to small- and medium-sized companies, and cash handouts to Singaporeans to supplement their living expenses.
But the government is extremely concerned about how the economy will fare as Singapore depends on external trade, tourism and travel to keep growth here strong. Officials say the economy could contract by 7% this year – the worst performance since independence.
Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat has warned the country is at a “critical juncture” in its economic development. Independent economists say Singapore’s contraction could be much worse if a vaccine isn’t developed soon.
Statistics as of Saturday 10 October, from Johns Hopkins University, except France
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As UK government prepares for new lockdowns, Europe too is struggling.