Coronavirus deaths in Europe have topped 100,000 as some countries take tentative steps towards ending lockdowns to confront the continent’s greatest economic crisis for decades.
Two-thirds of deaths from the pandemic have been in Europe after Covid-19 first emerged in China late last year and spread across the world.
Spain and the UK both tightened their restrictions but reductions in new infections in many other European countries have seen governments prepare for a partial easing to boost fragile economies.
Germany said that the virus was now “under control” after 3,400 deaths. Smaller stores, bike and book shops will be among those allowed to reopen on Monday, with some children returning to school within weeks. Switzerland, Denmark and Finland are also to begin reopening shops and schools this week.
The UK has denied reports that it had drawn up plans for a three-stage relaxation of lockdown measures with some schools set to reopen on May 11.
“That is not true, we have not made that decision,” said Michael Gove, a senior Cabinet minister.
UK officials have said the data on new infections is encouraging but have sought to retain the focus on ensuring people remain at home.
Speculation on easing of the lockdown follows mounting criticism of the UK government’s response to the crisis amid continued shortages of protective equipment for frontline medics and criticism of the role of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the run-up to the crisis. He is currently recovering after being treated in intensive care for Covid-19.
Mr Gove confirmed that Mr Johnson had not attended five of the government’s crisis meetings on coronavirus but said senior ministers normally attended and reported back.
“The idea that the prime minister skipped meetings that were vital to our response to the coronavirus, I think is grotesque," said Mr Gove.
The UK this weekend topped 16,000 deaths, behind only the United States, Italy, Spain and France in numbers of fatalities.
The differing responses to the crisis have highlighted the timing of the virus hitting major European economies but also the uncoordinated measures across the 27-nation European Union.
Senior EU leaders offered heartfelt apologies to Italy last week after no country immediately responded to its request for help through the bloc’s emergency assistance system.
Stay-at-home orders were enforced in Italy and Spain, the hardest hit countries with death tolls of more than 20,000, which will not loosen their measures until May at the earliest.
Spain at the weekend extended its nationwide shutdown to May 9 even as coronavirus deaths rose by 410 on Sunday, the smallest one-day increase for nearly a month.
“Spain has contained the brutal attack of the pandemic,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Saturday. “The gains aren’t enough yet, and they are fragile.”