(CN) — The United Kingdom, France and Spain recorded their highest death tolls yet from the coronavirus pandemic Tuesday, while Italy once again announced a devastating toll, bringing the total number of deaths across Europe close to 30,000.
Spain reported 849 new deaths in the past 24 hours, France said 499 more people had died and the U.K. announced 381 new victims, more than double the previous day’s figure.
In Spain, 8,269 people have died from the deadly virus, the U.K. toll now stands at 1,789 and France’s at 3,523.
In Italy, a downward trend in new infections is holding with the country reporting 4,053 new cases on Tuesday. But the number of people dying from the virus each day remains staggering: Italy reported 837 new deaths for a total of 12,428 victims, more than a fourth of all deaths worldwide. Across the globe, the virus-induced respiratory disease known as Covid-19 has killed more than 41,000 people, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Still, Italy is hopeful that it is turning a corner as the number of people testing positive begins to plateau. Italy was the first country outside of Asia to find itself in the midst of an outbreak and it is being watched carefully because what happens there provides clues to what other countries may expect to see as they race to contain the spread of the virus.
The outbreak in Italy first emerged around Feb. 23 and since then the country has taken a number of drastic steps to stop the virus’ spread. Italy has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 10, the longest of any European country. The lockdown has been extended to April 12, Easter Sunday. The restrictions have been so onerous and complicated that the Italian government had to clarify Monday that jogging is allowed but limited families to taking one child per parent out for a walk.
Across Europe, including countries outside the European Union such as those in the Balkans and Switzerland, the virus has killed close to 30,000 people – or nearly 10 times as many as died in China, even though the virus first emerged there among humans. China imposed a lockdown on Jan. 23 on Wuhan, a city of 11 million people where the first outbreak began. China’s efforts to contain the virus are now recognized as highly successful and have become a model for other nations. In recent days, the lockdown on Wuhan has begun to be lifted.
Europe’s accelerating death toll highlights the continent’s failures to heed warnings about the virus and underscores a lack of preparedness. Other major countries, most notably the United States, are also finding themselves flat-footed and unprepared by the ferocity of the pandemic.
The World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus a global health emergency on Jan. 30, prompting some countries to restrict travel from China. The U.S. and Italy were among those stopping flights from China, but regardless the virus spread across the globe. In Italy, some medical experts say the virus was likely already in the country before travel restrictions were imposed and that it had begun to spread inside Italy.
Until the outbreak in northern Italy, most Europeans were under the false assumption that the virus was not a problem in their countries. The first confirmed cases of coronavirus were linked to people who had been in China.
But in little more than a month, the virus has gone from not being a topic of discussion in Europe to what many are calling the continent’s biggest threat since the end of World War II.
Meeting this threat has been anything but easy or smooth for most European countries. There has been squabbling between European Union members over sharing medical resources and huge disagreements between richer and less well-off EU countries over how to pay for the economic toll of shutting down some of the world’s largest economies. Borders have been closed to the anger of neighbors and years of cuts to health services in countries hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis has exposed dangerous shortages at hospitals of staff, equipment and beds in intensive care units.
This surprise attack on Europe by a virus was on display in London Tuesday evening when the government held a daily briefing.
Missing in action was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He is in self-isolation after announcing last Friday that he had contracted the virus. He was faulted for carrying on his duties without taking precautions – in other words, not doing exactly what doctors are telling everyone to do, such as keeping at least 3 feet away from other people and not shaking hands. Also missing in action was his health secretary, Matt Hancock, and his chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, because they tested positive for the virus too.
Instead, it came down to Michael Gove, a top cabinet minister, to announce the U.K.’s new record daily death toll of 381.
“The increase in the number of deaths is deeply shocking, disturbing, moving,” Gove said. “And that is one of the reasons why it is so important that people keep the social distancing.”
During the briefing, Gove and two medical experts called in to take the place of those who’ve fallen sick were on the back foot as reporters questioned the U.K.’s readiness, why medical staff complained about a lack of tests and protective gear, why the U.K. was so far behind Germany in the number of daily tests being administered and why the number of deaths in the U.K. has quickly outpaced Germany’s. The government officials tried as best they could to present a positive picture of the U.K.’s response.
Johnson’s government has come under criticism for seeming to downplay the danger of the virus and waiting until March 23 to impose a lockdown on the U.K.
The U.K. faces problems that have become familiar across the globe: A lack of protective gear for hospital workers, a shortage of ventilators, not enough tests and a dearth of hospital beds. Workers are scrambling to build three massive field hospitals in London, Birmingham and Manchester. The hospital in London will be able to house 4,000 beds and the one in Birmingham is even bigger with a capacity for 5,000 beds.
Gove assured a nervous British public – which was, until the lockdown was imposed, largely ignoring the danger posed by the virus – that the government is aggressively working to contain the spread.
He said more tests are coming, ventilators are being bought and military aircraft have been deployed to transport medical equipment and workers, with one airplane even picking up a sick patient in the remote Shetland Islands.
Even though the U.K. is only little more than a week into its lockdown, the government said there are signs the number of infections is going down.
Steven Powis, medical director for the National Health Service in England, called the data on infections possible “green shoots” for hope.
But he was quick to add it is too early to know and that lockdown measures must be kept in place.
“Maybe some green shoots, but the last thing I would want is a message to anyone that this is a time to take our foot off the pedal,” he said. “This is not a short haul, as we’ve said, this is going to take time.”
He also cautioned that the number of victims will rise – and likely lag declines in the number of newly infected people and the sick requiring hospitalization.
“I suspect we will see a rise in deaths,” he said. “That is the indicator we will turn around last.”
Asked when the U.K. may see a peak in its outbreak, Gove said it was too early to say. “There’s not a fixed moment in time, like Easter, when the peak will come,” he said.
So far, Germany is somewhat the exception among the large Western European nations, but there are signs the virus is accelerating there too.
Germany has done extensive testing of its population and found more than 68,000 infected people, making it one of the countries with the most infections. But its number of deaths is still small compared to its large neighbors with 682 victims. As in other countries, nursing homes in Germany have been hit hard by the virus. In one home in the city of Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony, 18 people have died.
Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, a German health agency, said on Tuesday that the pandemic in Germany “will carry on for weeks and months” and that containment measures will have to remain in place. He warned the death rate will increase.
“I would like to ask all people to take this disease seriously,” he said.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.