For the second time this year, policymakers from Dublin to Rome are preparing to relax Covid-19 lockdowns — and “save Christmas” for the family reunions of 500m Europeans. Except this time they avoid calling it a reopening.
The restrictions implemented at the end of October throughout Europe are starting to yield results, with a slowdown in new infections recorded in most countries according to data tracked by the Financial Times. This is fuelling calls from retailers to end the mandatory closures of shops deemed non-essential during the most lucrative trading month of the year. But unlike in the summer, European governments warn there will be no full-scale relaxation of the restrictions.
The UK, France and Ireland are among the countries where lockdowns are due to expire in early December. They have signalled they will ease restrictions only gradually after being too lax the first time around.
The first wave had taught EU countries the cost of a “hasty” lifting of social restrictions, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, said last week.
“This time expectations have to be managed,” she said, adding that the commission will outline a “gradual and co-ordinated approach” to lifting containment measures to avoid the “risk of yet another wave”.
This time in Paris, French ministers are avoiding the term “de-confinement” for the three-step easing plan. First, stores deemed non-essential will be allowed to reopen with stringent health protocols around December 1. Then measures — possibly on travels — will be relaxed before the Christmas holidays, then again in January, based on the evolution of Covid-19 infections and hospitalisations.
“Let’s be clear: the lockdown will continue and the limitations on people’s movements will as well,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. President Emmanuel Macron is due to address the nation on Tuesday to set the tone.
So will UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday, when he is expected to outline his plan for what happens after England’s nationwide lockdown expires on December 2. Mass testing is expected to play a big role to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.
One member of the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the FT that modelling suggested a return to completely uncontrolled mixing over the festive period would take the R value — which measures the reproduction rate of the disease — from its current level of about 1 to between 2 and 3 — which would mean another exponential increase in infections.
In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is considering letting shops reopen in low-infection areas for 10 days before Christmas while limiting the size of family gatherings — with under-secretary of health Sandra Zampa suggesting only “first-degree family” will be able to meet.
“This Christmas we must all make the effort to be really as few as possible,” Ms Zampa said on television over the weekend.
Even in Germany, which excelled in handling the first wave by responding quickly to early warning signs, coronavirus cases remain relatively high despite the “lockdown-lite” measures imposed at the start of November.
Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday that the restrictions may need to be extended for two to three weeks. “For us to have a nice Christmas we need to extend the lockdown and tighten it too,” he said, noting that even though the shutdown had led to a stabilisation in new infections, German intensive care wards were filling up and the number of deaths from Covid-19 was rising.
If Germany’s shutdown were to be relaxed in time for Christmas, New Year’s Eve festivities would have to be drastically curtailed, he said, also calling for a ban on alcohol and fireworks in public places on December 31 and warning against winter skiing holidays.
Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Public Health Expertise in Paris, believed it was unlikely the food and drink outlets would reopen before January in France, given that indoor meetings in restaurants, bars and homes were big spreading factors.
“We know that if we’re not cautious enough, we’re going to have a third wave,” he said. “It’s (unacceptable) to have the pandemic back again in France, so they will probably lift restrictions very slowly.”
European countries have adopted different strategies at different times and been affected by the virus in different ways — the per capita infection rate in Luxembourg, the worst hit of 31 countries, is currently 22 times that in Finland, the least affected — but few regions have escaped unscathed.
Sweden, which was the only EU country not to have a formal lockdown during the first wave, recently unveiled what its prime minister called the most invasive measures in modern times, but which turned out to be limited restrictions on certain public gatherings. It is now the most restrictive Nordic country, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker.
The deployment of antigenic tests that give a result in 15 minutes and tell people whether they need to self-isolate has given Europe a new weapon to keep the pandemic under control in the months ahead — it is cited as one reason for Madrid’s recent dramatic turnround and the easing of pressure on its hospitals — but citizens across the continent are still likely to face months of a limited social life until mass vaccination.
William Dab, a professor of hygiene and safety at the French National Institute for Science, Technology and Management (CNAM), said the rapid antigenic tests could help avoid “a third lockdown, which would be a real catastrophe”.
But it would need to be accompanied by a well thought out strategy and prudent forecasting before the vaccines arrived, he said. “The management of an epidemic like this depends on the isolation of contagious people.”
Additional reporting: Arthur Beesley in Dublin, Miles Johnson in Rome, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Richard Milne in Oslo, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Leila Abboud in Paris