Europe Fears New National Lockdowns as Infections Surge

A line of green tents have been installed at the gates of a Madrid military hospital Friday, four months after similar structures for triaging incoming patients and lighten up crammed emergency wards were taken down. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

(CN) — With influenza season and colder months coming, Europe is facing the threat of new national lockdowns as coronavirus infections surge across the continent and health experts warn serious cases and deaths are likely to rise too.

Globally, the coronavirus pandemic is showing no sign of abating as the number of infections worldwide passed 30 million by Friday. Worldwide, more than 950,000 deaths have been linked to Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Worldwide, more than 5,000 infected people continue to die each day.

On Friday, the World Health Organization said Europe needs to prepare for a tough season ahead.

“We’re seeing increasing case numbers, we’re also seeing worrying trends of increasing hospitalizations, increasing ICU admissions, and we haven’t even begun the influenza season,” said Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, during a news briefing from the health agency’s Geneva headquarters.

She said the coronavirus pandemic will be an additional burden on health systems already stressed by the flu season.

In the past week, Europe has registered record numbers of infections, even more than were recorded during the darkest days of the pandemic in March and April. The higher numbers are attributed to more testing and the virus’ spread among younger people. Last week, about 300,000 new infections were reported across Europe.

Spain is the worst hit. Since mid-August, the virus has spread throughout the country and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control lists nearly all of Spain as a hot spot. In recent weeks, Spain recorded more than 10,000 new infections a day, though that number has declined. Spain is seeing a jump in deaths with about 600 since Monday.

France too is recording an alarming spike in cases. On Thursday, it reported 10,593 new cases, the highest number of new daily infections since the pandemic started. France, though, has not seen a jump in deaths.

As the spread of the virus accelerates in Europe, there are fears that new national lockdowns may be needed to halt the disease. For now, European leaders are resisting calls to impose nationwide lockdowns, which are seen as a last resort because they could further cripple economies already in deep recession.

The United Kingdom is in such a lockdown quandary as it sees infections rise steeply. For now, the British government hopes to contain the virus through targeted lockdowns and new drastic restrictions. A ban on gatherings of more than six people is now in effect for Scotland, England and Wales and even tighter restrictions went into place Friday for millions of people in northeast England where separate households are forbidden from mixing and the opening hours of pubs and restaurants have been curtailed.

“A national lockdown is the last line of defense,” said Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, on Sky News television on Friday. He said another nationwide lockdown can be avoided if Brits obey the new orders and infected people take the steps to ensure they don’t infect others.

Earlier in the week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government was doing “everything in our power” to prevent a second national lockdown.

“And can we afford it? I very much doubt that the financial consequences would be anything but disastrous, but we have to make sure that we defeat the disease by the means that we have set out,” Johnson said.

Van Kerkhove, the WHO scientist, said national lockdowns can be avoided through a “tailored approach.”

“We know in the beginning that many countries needed to apply national level, so-called lockdowns,” she said. “We’re seeing in many counties they are now taking a much more tailored approach to this, applying these interventions at the most local level, in a time-limited way and a geographically restricted way.”

Still, additional nationwide lockdowns may become unavoidable as the virus continues to spread. On Friday, Israel started its second national lockdown, which is being imposed as the nation of 9 million people begins celebrating Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days season. Restaurants, hotels and gyms, among other businesses, have been told to close.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, warned that the pandemic is far from over despite a plateauing of new infections worldwide. He said between 1.8 million and 2 million new cases are reported each week and that the pandemic is causing between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths each week.

“Thankfully, that is not rising exponentially,” he said about the number of deaths. “But that is a hugely high figure to be settling at. That is not where we want to be; it’s not where the Northern Hemisphere wants to be going into the winter season; it’s not where developing countries want to be with their health services under nine months of pressure.”

He warned that the majority of the world’s population remains at risk of infection.

“When we look at the number of human beings who’ve been exposed, this pandemic has a long way to go to burn in our society,” he said. “It is not burnt out. It is not burning out. It is not going away.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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