New restrictions are being rolled out across Europe as governments try to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections without imposing national lockdowns that would propel economies into a second crisis.
The new wave of restrictions comes only a month or two after some countries and regions assumed the worst of the pandemic was behind them, only to see the infection rate climb to record or near-record levels. The second wave is hitting France, Spain, the U.K. and a few countries in Central Europe particularly hard.
On Monday, the World Health Organization estimated one in 10 people worldwide had been infected with COVID-19 – more than 20 times the number of confirmed cases.
Britain acknowledged a “technical issue” with its test-and-trace system omitted more than 15,000 cases between Sept. 25 and Oct. 2. The recount triggered a surge in cases, with almost 23,000 reported Sunday.
Also on Sunday, the day after France reported almost 17,000 new COVID-19 cases, the French government put Paris and several other cities on “maximum alert” for fear that hospitals could be overwhelmed by new admissions. Starting Tuesday, Paris will close all bars, gyms and swimming pools for two weeks, but restaurants will be allowed to stay open until 10 p.m. as long as strict hygiene rules are observed and customers submit their contact details in case a local outbreak means they have to be traced.
“These measures are aimed at slowing the spread of the virus because it is spreading too quickly,” Paris police chief Didier Lallement said at a news conference on Monday. “We have to slow it down so that our health system is not overwhelmed.”
Over the weekend, Madrid, one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots, went into partial lockdown for two weeks. The restrictions in effect turn the Spanish capital and and nine of its suburbs into an island to prevent the transmission of infections throughout the country. All non-essential trips out of the Madrid area are prohibited.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said Madrid had a 14-day infection rate of 695 cases per 100,000 residents, which is more than twice the national average and seven times the European average. The city’s conservative Popular Party government plans to mount a legal challenge to the new lockdown, arguing it would cause economic “chaos” in a city still reeling form the harsh spring lockdown.
Spain has the highest caseload in the European Union. By Sunday, it had recorded more than 810,000 infections and almost 31,000 deaths. France had the second highest number of cases, at 620,000, followed by the U.K., with 503,000, and Italy, with 328,000.
Italy’s status as a success story in the battle against the disease has been under threat in recent weeks. In the summer, it knocked down the number of new daily cases to the low hundreds. But since mid-August, the numbers have climbed relentlessly, even if they remain relatively low compared with France, Spain and Britain. On Monday, Italy recorded 2,257 new cases.
In a Rai3 TV interview on Monday, Massimo Galli, head of the infectious-diseases department at Milan’s Luigi Sacco Hospital, predicted another round of restrictions and said, “We are risking a situation comparable in some respects to that of March,” a reference to the start of the Italian national lockdown, which was the longest and tightest in the world, lasting almost 10 weeks.
In Rome, where the number of new cases is among the highest in the country, mask use in all outdoor and indoor public spaces is now obligatory for anyone over the age of 6, as it is in several other cities and regions. The Italian cabinet was expected on Monday to make mask use mandatory throughout the country and impose other restrictions, such as new restaurant closing times. But Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri said that Italy is not facing a new national lockdown, although “controls should be made more rigorous.”
Cases are climbing across Europe because of increased testing, the reopening of schools, the arrival of cooler weather – which is pushing people indoors, where they can be more easily infected – and, according to the ECDC, “intense transmission” among 15- to 49-year-olds. The agency on Monday said that the total number of infections in the EU, U.K. and several European countries that are not part of the EU, including Norway, had reached almost 3.6 million, with 192,000 deaths. The true numbers are thought to be far higher.
Central Europe, which largely escaped the wave of infections and deaths that hit Western Europe in the spring, is now seeing a case surge. The Czech Republic reported 312 cases per 100,000 in the past 14 days, a figure exceeded in Europe only by Spain and seven times the Italian level. Cases have also climbed sharply in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, according to ECDC data.
Central European countries locked down tight in the spring and eased their restrictions in the summer. Testing rates remain relatively low, and mixed messaging on restrictions, such as mask use, has confused many citizens.
Germany, the biggest economy in the EU, has also seen an uptick in cases in recent weeks, reaching the highest number since the European crisis peak in April. But the German death rate remains one of the lowest on the continent, and the economy reported solid growth in September, alone among the big EU countries.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.