Since the beginning of pandemic, Europe has had a particularly tortured relationship with Covid-19 lockdowns. That they happened at all was an early surprise of the pandemic. In an interview last December, the architect of Britain’s lockdown, Neil Ferguson, recalled seeing the early success of the policy in China. “We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought,” he said. “And then Italy did. And we realised we could.”
Suddenly, governments had the confidence to impose previously unthinkable restrictions on people and their civil liberties. And with Covid-19 once again on the rise in Europe, a number of countries are facing the potential need to return to strict controls on movement.
With vaccines and improved treatment methods, much has changed since the first ones. Many find the case for restrictions a great deal weaker. People are weary, and a significant minority are very angry.
From November 22, Austria, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Western Europe, will implement a 20-day full lockdown. By February, the government will make it mandatory to have the vaccine, making Austria one of only four countries globally to do so. The response has been furious. Up to 35,000 people protested in the capital Vienna on Saturday. Thousands also protested across the Netherlands at the end of last week, after the announcement of a temporary and partial lockdown. In Rotterdam, several people were injured when police fired shots during a demonstration. From Northern Ireland to North Macedonia, there have been protests relating to Covid-19 policies.
Violence by demonstrators is inexcusable, and the suppression of the spread of Covid-19 must remain the priority. But with some Europeans now facing the prospect of a fourth period of lockdowns, peaceful frustration is justified, especially given the fact that other countries, most outside Europe, have made do with just one.
However, we are starting to see starkly different success rates within the continent. The UK, for example, is not facing the prospect of tightening restrictions, or at least for now. It had a very problematic start to the pandemic, but today is in a strong enough position to avoid the return of harsher measures. On the other hand, Germany, with rocketing infections, is only just moving forward with plans to introduce restrictions for the unvaccinated in areas with high rates, such as a ban on them using public transport.
As we develop more tools to deal with the pandemic, full or partial lockdowns will no longer be the blunt necessity they were at the beginning of 2020. Instead, they will be a last resort for countries that have failed to implement effective containment measures. An increasing number of countries are successfully managing this transition. Many are a great deal less wealthy that western ones.
Most governments might have been surprised to learn they had the power and popular acquiescence to impose strict measures at the beginning of the pandemic, but almost two years on, they might be reaching the end of that understanding. After the fourth time 'unlucky', leaders in countries that failed to tackle the pandemic properly need to take long-term action to stop increasingly unpopular lockdowns becoming necessary again.