How Europe plans to get out of lockdown for Christmas

Emmanuel Macron relaxed coronavirus rules on Tuesday as Covid cases dropped

Christmas holiday lights decorate trees along the Champs Elysees in Paris with the Arc de Triomphe in the background, France, November 22, 2020. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
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Europe is hoping to preserve the joy of Christmas by allowing families to meet for the holiday as infection rates decline in many countries.

France was one of the first countries to announce such a measure during an address by President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday evening.

France will start easing its coronavirus lockdown this weekend so that by Christmas, shops, theatres and cinemas will re-open and people will be able to spend the holiday with their families.

In his address, Mr Macron said the worst of the second wave of the epidemic in France was over, but that restaurants, cafes and bars would have to stay shut until January 20 to avoid triggering a third wave.

President Macron eases lockdown but warns of third wave

President Macron eases lockdown but warns of third wave

"We must do everything to avoid a third wave, do everything to avoid a third lockdown," Mr Macron said.

After curfew measures in many French cities in mid-October failed to produce the results the government had hoped for, a one-month lockdown was put in place on October 30, though it was less strict than the lockdown that ran from March 17 to May 11.

Positive trends including a decline in hospitalisations for Covid-19 infections, combined with pressure from business lobbies who say they are facing financial ruin, have led to calls to loosen the lockdown as soon as possible.

Mr Macron also said he would start a vaccination campaign at the end of December or the beginning of January, starting with the most vulnerable and older people. Vaccination will not be mandatory, he said.

The address comes as new cases plunge to their lowest level in two months.

Mr Macron's move to ease the lockdown mirrors Boris Johnson's announcement on Monday that England's shutdown would end on December 2 as expected and that there would be a reprieve over the festive season.

Other European nations, including Germany, are heading in the same direction.

Mr Macron is expected to announce that measures will ease in three phases as infections decline. On Monday, France reported 4,452 new cases - the lowest daily figure since September 28.

The tally easily achieves Mr Macron’s stated aim of reaching a daily case number below 5,000 before easing the lockdown.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the first easing would take place “around” December 1, followed by a second one before year-end holidays and a third in January.

With data showing France on track to rein in a surge in coronavirus infections, the government is under pressure from shops and businesses to ease restrictions in time for the Christmas shopping season.

"We had committed to allow them (shopkeepers) to reopen around December 1 if the health situation improved, which seems to be the case," Mr Attal told Le Journal Du Dimanche.

Bars and restaurants, however, "will continue to experience restrictions," he added.

In Germany, authorities were planning on allowing gatherings of up to 10 people over Christmas and the New Year.

The premiers of the states are due to agree on plans with Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday.

Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller told ARD television he was confident the measures, agreed to by the leaders late on Monday, would be adopted.

The premiers agreed to extend a national "lockdown light", introduced on November 2, to December 20, with bars, restaurants and entertainment venues remaining shut while schools and shops stay open.

They also agreed to reduce the number of people allowed to meet to five starting December 1.

Germany, which kept infections and deaths low compared to many of its neighbours during the first wave, stopped an exponential rise in new coronavirus cases, but the overall numbers are still far too high, officials said.

Coronavirus cases rose by 13,554 on Tuesday while the death toll increased by 249 to 14,361.

Keen to stop a revolt against the rules, German officials want to offer relief over Christmas with a December 23 to January 1 amnesty on family gatherings.

"Christmas and other end-of-year festivities should be possible … with family and friends even in this unusual year, albeit on a smaller scale," a draft proposal of the Christmas plan said.

Workers dismantle Christmas stands at Potsdamer Platz admit the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Berlin, Germany, November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
Germany is considering relaxing coronavirus restrictions over Christmas. Reuters 

The German leaders stopped short of recommending a blanket ban on fireworks at New Year's Eve, but said none would be allowed in public areas to avoid large numbers of people gathering.

In the UK, Mr Johnson said he was working with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish executives on nationwide plans to briefly relax the rules at Christmas to allow families to get together, with details to be announced shortly.

He urged the public to keep following the rules in the run-up to the festive season to make a short respite possible.

"'’Tis the season to be jolly, but 'tis also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives,” he said.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warned that this Christmas “will be different” as he seeks to “avoid a third wave”.

But as infections fall, a plan is in the works to allow gatherings of up to six people at parties.

The government will recommend that office gatherings and similar celebrations in the run-up to the holidays be held on restaurant terraces, outside or in places with "no more than two walls", it was reported.

A draft document proposed "planning a different Christmas without taking out the soul and spirit that makes it one of our citizens' most beloved holidays".

Some regions, however, are already moving ahead.

Catalonia is reopening bars and restaurants and wants to allow gatherings of up to 10 people at Christmas.

In Italy, the government is drafting a decree to limit social contact until the New Year, and officials are considering pushing back the curfew to 11pm to allow people more time for buying gifts.

“Italians will need to prepare for a sober Christmas, with no big parties, hugs and kisses, as one week of unrestrained social gatherings would lead to a sharp steepening of the pandemic curve with more deaths and pressure on ICUs,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week.

“The country cannot afford that.”

As lockdown is eased in some countries, others are going backwards.

Sweden, which never ordered a lockdown, has registered 17,265 new cases since Friday, compared to 15,084 new cases recorded during the previous week.

A further 94 deaths were recorded, bringing the total to 6,500.

On Monday, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven used a rare national address to bemoan his countrymen's failure to stick to Covid-19 restrictions.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said Russia’s healthcare system was under heavy strain in the lead-up to Christmas.

The country reported a record 491 Covid deaths on Tuesday, with 24,326 new cases.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "The healthcare system is working under heavy strain, but with the exception of a few regions...the situation remains under control.

"This is an epidemiological challenge that all the world's countries have faced. We have not faced such challenges in either new or modern history."