German officials agreed to impose a four-week partial lockdown and the French government announced a nationwide lockdown Wednesday as European governments sought to stop a fast-rising tide of coronavirus cases sweeping the continent.
The World Health Organization says the European region – which includes Russia, Turkey, Israel and Central Asia, according to its definition – accounted for almost half of the 2.8 million new coronavirus cases reported globally last week. The U.N. health agency said virus-related deaths were also on the rise in Europe, with about a 35% spike since the previous week, as well as hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
“We are deep in the second wave,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels. “I think that this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas.”
The European Union, Britain, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland alone accounted for 1.1 million cases over the past seven days, she said, “and we expect this number to keep rising in the next two to three weeks, and rapidly.”
German officials have agreed to a four-week shutdown of restaurants, bars, cinemas, theatres and other leisure facilities in a bid to curb a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Merkel and the country’s 16 state governors, who are responsible for imposing and easing restrictions, agreed on the partial lockdown in a videoconference. It is set to take effect on Monday and last until the end of November.
Merkel said, “We must act, and now, to avoid an acute national health emergency.”
Restaurants will still be allowed to serve take-out food. Shops and schools are to remain open, unlike during Germany’s shutdown during the first phase of the pandemic.
The decision came hours after Germany’s disease control agency said a record 14,964 new confirmed cases were recorded across the country in the past day, taking the national total in the pandemic to 449,275.
In France, more than half of the country’s intensive care units are already occupied by COVID-19 patients. French military and commercial planes are ferrying critically ill virus patients to other regions as hospitals fill up and French doctors have called on the government to impose a new nationwide lockdown.
President Emmanuel Macron announced a second nationwide lockdown from Friday, but said schools would remain open.
France reported 288 new virus-related deaths in hospitals in 24 hours Tuesday and 235 deaths in nursing homes over the previous four days. Both figures marked the biggest such rise since May.
“(France has been) overpowered by a second wave,” Macron said in a national televised address Wednesday.
“Nothing is more important than human life,” he added, noting that France has one of the biggest coronavirus rates in Europe currently.
“We are having 40,000-50,000 new identified contaminations each day,” he said.
The government is scheduled to lay out the details of the new lockdown on Thursday.
Overall, Europe has seen more than 250,000 virus-related deaths since the start of the outbreak, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Britain and the Czech Republic have also seen a surge in new cases over the past 14 days, while infections rates in Germany were lower but climbing steadily.
Merkel had pressed governors of the country’s 16 states to quickly agree upon a partial lockdown. After they authorized the move, the chancellor appealed to people not to make unnecessary journeys and said hotels won’t be able to accommodate people on tourist trips.
“We can say that our health system can cope with the challenge today,” Merkel said. “But if the pace of infections continues like this, then we’ll reach the limits of what the health system can manage within weeks.”
The planning has caused anguish in Germany’s hospitality industry, with thousands of venue owners staging a protest Wednesday at Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate to demand further financial support from the government.
The loud but peaceful rally contrasted with angry scenes in the last few days, when anti-mask protesters clashed with police in the German capital, in several Italian cities and in the Czech Republic.
In Italy, Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, spoke out Wednesday against a lockdown in the Lombardy capital, the epicenter of Italy’s new virus resurgence.
Von der Leyen, the EU chief, acknowledged the growing toll that the continued crisis is taking.
“This time we have two enemies,” she said. “The coronavirus itself and corona fatigue, that is the growing weariness when it comes to the precautionary measures.”
Von der Leyen insisted, however, that “now is not the time to relax.”
In Prague, demonstrators in horror masks marched against virus restrictions Wednesday even though the Czech Republic holds the grim European record of almost 1,450 cases per 100,000 people in the past fortnight, closely followed by Belgium, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
The Czech Health Ministry said the country’s daily increase in new infections hit a record high of 15,663 on Tuesday – more than was reported Wednesday in Germany, which has eight times the population.
The Czech government has further tightened its regulations, imposing a nationwide curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. that started Wednesday. It previously limited free movement, closed stores, schools and restaurants, made it mandatory to wear face masks indoors and outdoors, and banned sport competitions, but the number of infections has continued to rise.
While Germany has fared better than many European countries during the pandemic, officials there warn that it, too, is beginning to lose control of the situation and cite the explosion of cases in the Czech Republic as a reason for earlier lockdowns.
Economists said further restrictions need to be carefully calibrated to avoid dealing a second severe blow to businesses.
“A national lockdown, as we have seen in, ravages an economy and would add significant complications to the ongoing economic recovery,” said Fiona Cincotta, an analyst at online trading firm GAIN Capital.
But Thomas Gitzel, chief economist at Liechtenstein’s VP Bank Group, said a temporary lockdown could be less harmful than a prolonged slump in consumer spending as infection levels remain stubbornly high.
“One doesn’t need to be a virologist to conclude that, without further restrictions, the number of new daily infections will likely rise,” said Gitzel, adding that a short, strict lockdown could be effective. “The strict containment measures in March and April laid the ground for an economically successful summer.”
In France, there was some understanding about the difficulty of choices facing the government.
“I don’t blame the government for pondering before taking decisions that will have serious consequences in many domains such as health, education and economy,” said Parisian Gilles Weinzaepflen.
“Those are not decisions that are easy to take,” he added. “I am more unhappy with political polemics, because I think that this is not the moment for this, it’s a moment to stick together and find solutions that are the less painful for people.”
Lorne Cook in Brussels, Maria Cheng in London and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.