(CN) — Following wild and often ugly scenes surrounding Italy's defeat of England on Sunday night in the European soccer championships, fears are mounting about the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across Europe as people across the continent let down their guard and mass gatherings return to force.
In scenes not seen since before the pandemic, London became a sea of humans as hundreds of thousands of soccer fans gathered at Wembley Stadium and in central London for the final game in the beloved monthlong soccer tournament, the biggest soccer event for Europe outside the World Cup. The tournament was supposed to be played last summer, but it was postponed due to the pandemic.
Watching the scenes on television, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's technical lead on the pandemic, called what she saw “devastating.”
“Am I supposed to be enjoying watching transmission happening in front of my eyes?” she said on Twitter Sunday night during the game. “The Covid-19 pandemic is not taking a break tonight.”
In both England and Italy, bars, restaurants, homes, streets and public squares filled with fans, many of them young and exuberant. In London, rowdy ticketless fans even stormed Wembley Stadium and managed to breach security. Following England's defeat, sweaty, angry and drunken crowds of English fans rioted in London and clashed with Italian fans. London police made dozens of arrests.
Van Kerkove worried that the more contagious delta strain of the coronavirus, which has become dominant in the United Kingdom, would spread among the “unvaccinated people, in crowded settings, unmasked, screaming/shouting/singing.”
Across Europe, the number of new infections has risen steadily following the lifting of lockdowns and restrictions. Once again, the U.K. is becoming a hot spot for the virus and England's month of celebration as it reveled in its national team's successes can only fuel the spread of the virus.
Since the start of the European soccer championship on June 11, the daily number of new coronavirus cases has more than quadrupled from about 6,500 to more than 31,000 cases in the U.K. Scotland and Wales also played in the tournament.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed to lift most restrictions despite the rise in infections, and he has set July 19 as “freedom day” when nearly all restrictions will be lifted and masks will no longer be required in shops and on public transport. Johnson is banking on the high vaccination rates in the U.K. About 51% of Brits are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to data tracked by Our World in Data, a research group affiliated with the University of Oxford.
Johnson at a news conference on Monday confirmed plans to open up this time next week, though he urged caution.
Johnson, a Conservative who championed the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, tried to put on a brave face amid the wreckage of England's defeat against Italy and widespread fury over an avalanche of racist comments hurled by English fans on social media against black players on the team who missed penalty kicks at the end of the game. Johnson blasted the racist comments and told those fans to “crawl back under the rock from which you emerged.”
England's loss had political overtones to it too in the wake of Brexit. Italian newspapers portrayed Italy as playing on behalf of the entire EU, and many English fans hoped for a win that could validate Brexit.
The championship game capped a month of growing celebrations — and anxiety over a rise in infections — as Europe's national teams battled it out in stadiums across Europe and pent-up fans were allowed back into the stands and to travel as they followed their teams.
But it's not just mass gatherings at soccer stadiums that is fueling the rise in cases. Tourism has resumed and most mass events are back on the calendar. For example, the roads of the Tour de France are once again lined with spectators and thousands of moviemakers are back at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, vented on Monday about what he saw as reckless behavior by people in richer countries who feel that the pandemic is over.
“High-income countries that are vaccinating their populations significantly are starting to see the Covid-19 pandemic as if it's not their problem,” Tedros said during a news briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters. “That is dangerous.”
He said richer countries are falsely thinking they have managed to control the virus and are beginning to ignore the suffering in the rest of the world, where most countries are struggling to vaccinate their populations.
“I'm not sure they are out of the woods, and I don't think they're in control because of the delta strain and others that may evolve,” Tedros said. There are numerous reports of vaccinated people getting infected by the delta strain, though experts say vaccines protect against serious infections.
He urged richer countries to help the rest of the world get vaccines and said it was “seriously disappointing” that wealthier countries are now buying stockpiles to provide their citizens with a third booster shot.
“I think anybody can see that it's greed,” Tedros said. “The two-tier pandemic is worrying us.”
For months, the WHO has warned that the pandemic will continue to cripple the world economy and cause massive death and sickness unless vaccines are distributed around the world equally.
Globally, the numbers of new infections and deaths are rising. There are signs that the pandemic may be entering a third major wave. Officially, more than 4 million deaths have been linked to Covid-19. About 430,000 new infections are detected each day, about half the number of infections during the worst phase of the pandemic in April. The WHO said deaths too are on the rise for the first time after 10 weeks of declines.
“We're experiencing a worsening public health emergency that further threatens lives, livelihoods and a sound global economic recovery,” Tedros said. “It is definitely worse in places that have very few vaccines, but the pandemic is not over anywhere.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
Follow Cain Burdeau on Twitter
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.