Europe’s rush to reopen before Covid is contained risks backfiring

Scientists fear coronavirus restrictions are being lifted too quickly

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Europe's eagerness to relax Covid-19 restrictions risks a devastating new wave of cases, scientists said.

As many European countries unveiled plans this week to ease coronavirus lockdown measures, after a third wave of the virus struck the continent last month, there are fears that governments are moving too quickly.

France plans to ease travel restrictions from May 3, only a month after entering lockdown. Italy will begin reopening restaurants and cinemas from next week, even though infection rates remain high.

By comparison, the UK has been in lockdown since the start of the year and is only now coming out of it after cases dropped from nearly 60,000 a day to fewer than 2,500.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that Britain was getting the pandemic under control, after new research showed the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were slashing infections by up to 90 per cent.

The continent has belatedly improved its vaccination programme, but the benefits have yet to be seen.

Italy’s largest medical union said that while the data of the past few weeks suggested a slowdown in the growth of infections, intensive care wards are overloaded and the bed occupancy rate is above critical thresholds.

Carlo Palermo, the head of Italy’s doctors union, said there were about 530,000 active infections and hospitals were overcrowded.

"Any premature relaxation of restrictions could endanger the lives of Covid-19 patients, forcing operators to make harrowing choices from an ethical point of view due to a shortage of beds, and the health of patients with other pathologies," he told The National.

"For the third time, after the second epidemic peak last autumn, health workers are forced to make further sacrifices, at the risk of personal health, as well as to face a situation of constant physical and mental overwork that is weakening their resistance."

In Italy, more than 16 million vaccine doses have been administered, with about 4.8 million people fully inoculated, but case numbers and deaths remain high, despite a fall since lockdown measures were introduced.

From next week, many restrictions will be relaxed as restaurants and cinemas reopen. The Italian government called it a "calculated risk".

Mr Palermo said a relaxation of restrictions should be possible only when daily infections are below 5,000 – about a third of the current rate. Those most at risk and the over-60s should also be vaccinated, a thorough test-and-trace system implemented and hospitals should be well below critical capacity, he said.

“Without a long-lasting solution to the health crisis, there can be no economic recovery or a safe return to normal social relations,” Mr Palermo said.

Healthcare workers take nasal swab samples from people, as they need to be tested to pass the barricade for the non-stop "Covid-free" direct train from Rome to Milan, as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Rome, Italy, April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Vaccinations kick in

A stuttering, much maligned EU-led vaccination campaign is slowly gathering pace and there are small signs that the tight restrictions many countries have endured for the past month are having an effect.

This this month the World Health Organisation said one million people had died from Covid-19 in the 53-state Europe region.

WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge said it was only in those aged 80 and over that they were seeing a decline in Covid infection rates, which he said was possibly because of high vaccination rates in the elderly.

“There are early signs that transmission may be slowing across several countries. Let me be clear, early signs of decline are not equal to low rates of transmission. Transmission must be driven down to low rates and kept low, by harnessing our energy and resilience to beat the virus,” he said.

In the Netherlands, a three-month night-time curfew will be lifted next week and restaurants allowed to reopen on a limited basis – despite infections continuing to rise and the number of patients in intensive care beds at its highest level since January. The country is now averaging more than 8,000 cases a day, more than double the number two months ago.

"It won't happen without taking risks, but the risks must be responsible. That is and will remain a balancing act for now," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. "We have to be very careful and cautious."

The reopening is partly being driven by waning support for lockdowns, with the Netherlands' largest hospitality association saying the government risked alienating the general public if the catering industry was not allowed to reopen.

Scientists want more time

In Belgium, scientists urged the government to move “later rather than sooner” by easing restrictions in June rather than May.

A substantial lifting of restrictions on May 1 could lead to a fourth wave that would leave doctors “flirting with the country’s maximum ICU capacity,” said a report by the Restore consortium of scientists.

By contrast, waiting until June would allow for another month’s progress in Belgium’s vaccination campaign, which would limit the size of any fourth wave.

Health officials expect that a large majority of people over 65 will have been vaccinated by June.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said last week that authorities planned to allow bars and restaurants to reopen for outdoor service in May.

A ban on non-essential travel was also lifted this week, but Mr De Croo said “this is really not the moment to start travelling”.

The French government said it is probably near the peak of the pandemic even as it announced that cafes and cultural venues are likely to reopen in mid-May – with children due back in schools next week.

This is despite the country averaging more than 32,000 new daily cases in the past week and about 300 deaths, while intensive care units are also under pressure.

France entered its third lockdown in early April after holding out against one through the winter months.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said travel restrictions would be relaxed from early May.

He said there had been a "genuine fall in the circulation of the virus over the last 10 days".

A restriction that bars people from travelling more than 10 kilometres from their homes will be dropped on May 3, Mr Castex said.

Germany, meanwhile, is bucking the trend by tightening restrictions. A controversial bill to enforce curfews in hard-hit areas was signed into law on Thursday.

The bill seizes control of lockdown measures from Germany's 16 state governments, some of which were criticised by Angela Merkel for failing to impose tough restrictions.

Under the new law, areas with an infection rate of more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people in a week will face a 10pm curfew.

Nearly 350 of Germany's 412 administrative districts were above that threshold as of Thursday.

Schools will return to remote learning at an infection rate of 165 or above, with children tested twice a week in areas where classrooms are open.

A waiter wearing a face protection mask serves a coffee on the terrace of the "Restaurant Le Leman" the opening day of the terrace, restaurants can only open their terraces but indoor rooms remain closed, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Nyon, Switzerland, Monday, April 19, 2021. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

In Switzerland, some restrictions were lifted this week, with outdoor cafes and indoor gyms opening their doors despite rising infection rates.

Scientists voiced concern about the risk of a larger third wave while businesses said on Wednesday that the easing did not go far enough.

Cinemas, sports halls and restaurant patios were also allowed to reopen in the Alpine country on Monday.

However, an association of Swiss hotels and restaurants, Gastro Suisse, said that prospects for the industry were dismal.

“We are bitterly disappointed,” said Gastro Suisse president Casimir Platzer, after the authorities said no further easing would be possible until late May.

“The fact that indoor spaces have to remain closed is incomprehensible,” he said.

Switzerland's economic damage and the health effects on people affected by closures were greater than the pressure on hospitals, Mr Platzer said.

The country’s official Science Task Force took a different view in a report published a day after restrictions eased. It said that the new measures risked making Switzerland’s third wave worse.

“According to our simulations, the new easing of restrictions brings a considerable risk that the third wave will be clearly larger than it would have been otherwise,” the report said.

A larger third wave would mean not only more infections but also more hospital admissions and more deaths from Covid-19, scientists said.

One scientist, Dominique de Quervain, announced that he was quitting the Task Force because of what he called a “political corset” preventing experts from giving unfiltered advice.

The easing of restrictions during the third wave in Switzerland was a mistake, he said.

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