Europe struggles to free Christmas from Covid chains

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Europeans eagerly awaiting the Christmas and New Year holidays without the cumbersome Covid-19 lockdowns were abruptly brought back to earth last week, with infection rates still high across the continent forcing governments in London to Athens to strengthen or maintain restrictions on free movement.

Belgium has extended restrictions throughout the holiday and will allow people to invite a single adult friend – known as ‘cuddly contact’ – to their home, or two if they live alone. France has canceled a reprieve for New Year’s Eve gatherings and will impose a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. from Tuesday.

Italy, which this weekend overtook the UK to record the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe of 64,036, has imposed some of the continent’s toughest Christmas travel restrictions that will ban Italians to move between regions from December 20 to January 6. remain under lockdown until January 7. In the UK, infections have increased and there is speculation London and other areas will face tighter restrictions to be announced this week.

But he is Germany, who handled the first wave of the pandemic in the spring better than most of its neighbors, who face one of the second wave’s most serious threats as governments seek to avoid a repeat of Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States last month which caused a new wave of infections and deaths.

Germany initially planned to ease the partial closure imposed in early November for the holiday season. He is now doing the opposite, decreeing a much more draconian lockdown that will take effect Wednesday and last for three and a half weeks. “We were forced to act”, Angela Merkel, Chancellor, told reporters on Sunday after a meeting with the leaders of the 16 German states.

The trigger was a sudden and dramatic worsening of the coronavirus situation, with a record high of nearly 30,000 new infections and 598 deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.

“Corona is out of control,” Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder said on Sunday. “We are five minutes from midnight.”

Germany imposed a “lockdown-lite” in November which led to the closure of restaurants, bars, theaters and gymnasiums, although most businesses and schools remained open. But Merkel said on Sunday that those measures had “not been enough” and that infections were once again increasing exponentially.

The leaders decreed that starting Wednesday, most shops and schools will close. Businesses should encourage their employees to work from home whenever possible. Restrictions on private social gatherings of more than five people will remain in place, although they will be relaxed slightly between December 24 and 26 so families can spend Christmas together.

Chart showing test positivity remains in double digits in many European countries and declines have stabilized in some places

Public consumption of alcohol will also be prohibited from Wednesday, and large public gatherings and fireworks forbidden on New Years Eve.

The change in rhetoric has been striking: Just days ago, authorities were discussing easing current restrictions for Christmas and New Years. Today, it is increasingly realized that all public life must be interrupted during the holiday season and beyond.

France was quick to impose restrictions as the second wave set in in the fall weather after the summer break, and until early December seemed on track to significantly relax controls for Christmas. Prime Minister Jean Castex boasted last week that France’s infection rate on December 10 was lower than that of Germany, Italy and the United States, having been higher than all six weeks earlier.

Chart showing Covid-19 hospital occupancy rate is now dropping in many European countries, but levels remain high, risking a crisis in the event of a winter surge

But the slowdown in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in France has stalled and the figure remains stubbornly high at around 14,000 per day – nearly three times the target set by President Emmanuel Macron for a relaxation. Health officials blame a combination of cold weather and increased contact between people at home, in stores and at work.

This prompted Mr Castex to announce the new nationwide nighttime curfew and to declare that cinemas, theaters and sports centers could not reopen on Tuesday as scheduled – although the French could travel far from home and will not. be required to complete government forms justifying each movement. Police have carried out nearly 3 million checks since October and more than 285,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules.

Health Minister Olivier Véran said: “A new Frenchman is hospitalized every minute due to a Covid infection.”

Even in Spain, where the infection rate has fallen steadily since the country imposed curfews and travel restrictions in late October, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Friday warned citizens not to let their guard down during the holidays. “Although we have a level slightly above 180 [infections per 100,000 people]”He said,” we should be 25 years old.

The rise in infections will inevitably lead in two to three weeks to more hospitalizations and deaths in a season when medical facilities are already under pressure, and governments fear the Christmas festivities will once again allow the pandemic to spiral out of control.

“People really should be very, very sensible during this time and throughout this risky time, because it’s a very risky time for us,” England chief medical officer Chris Whitty said last week.

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London, Michael Peel in Brussels, Kerin Hope in Athens, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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