Europe reels under record coronavirus upsurge; fresh restrictions imposed

New infections have surged across Europe over recent weeks as the fall kicks in

virus-cells-coronavirus-copy-space-virus-Covid-19-shut Representational image

Fears rose Thursday that Europe is running out of chances to control its fall coronavirus outbreak, as infections hit record daily highs in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland. France slapped a 9pm curfew on many of its biggest cities and Londoners faced new travel restrictions as governments imposed increasingly tough measures.

New infections have surged across Europe over recent weeks as the fall kicks in, prompting authorities to start re-imposing restrictions relaxed over the summer. The Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Britain are among the countries causing particular concern.

The head of the World Health Organisation's Europe office urged governments to be uncompromising in controlling the virus. "These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course," Dr Hans Kluge said, while wearing a mask. "It is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of following the path of severity."

Kluge cited epidemiological models that suggested if 95 per cent of people wear masks and follow other social distancing measures, Europe could avoid about 281,000 deaths by February. But he warned that relaxing measures could lead to a five-fold increase in deaths by January.

European nations as a whole have seen nearly 230,000 confirmed deaths from the virus, more than the nearly 2,17,000 reported virus deaths so far in the United States, according to figures tallied by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree understate the true impact of the pandemic. Europe's financial markets fell sharply Thursday on concerns that the new restrictions on swathes of the region's economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its sharpest recession in modern history. Major stock indexes were well over 2 per cent lower in Europe.

While Germany, the European Union's most populous nation, is still in comparatively good shape, alarm bells are ringing there too. On Thursday, the national disease control center reported 6,638 cases over 24 hours, exceeding the previous record of nearly 6,300 set in late March, although testing has expanded greatly since then. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's 16 state governors agreed Wednesday night to tighten mask-wearing rules, make bars close early and limit the number of people who can gather in areas where coronavirus infection rates are high. But those decisions probably won't be enough, Merkel's chief of staff, Helge Braun, told ARD television.

We must stop this exponential rise, the quicker the better, Merkel said, noting that neighboring European countries are having to take very drastic measures. This week has seen the Netherlands close bars and restaurants, and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland shut down schools. 

In France, President Emmanuel Macron put 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, under a 9pm curfew starting Saturday for at least four weeks, and possibly through December 1. Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region's public health agency, said nearly half of its intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.

"It is a kind of spring tide that affects everybody simultaneously," Rousseau said. "We had a blind spot in our tracking policies. It was the private sphere, festive events." The British government on Thursday moved London and a half-dozen other areas into the country's second-highest virus risk level, meaning that millions will be barred from meeting people outside their households and will be asked to minimise travel.

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