(CN) – With economies and citizens reeling from weeks of shutdowns, European leaders are moving toward lifting restrictions to get people back to work, even in Spain where the coronavirus outbreak is far from contained.
Most of Europe remains under lockdowns but pressure is building to kick start society again, though officials caution life won’t return to normal any time soon and that easing restrictions may lead to a new wave of infections.
Health experts are telling nations to be careful.
“Some countries are considering when they can lift these restrictions,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization director-general, at a news briefing on Monday. He said containing an outbreak takes much longer than it does to take off and explode.
“The way down is much more difficult than the way up,” Tedros said. Lifting restrictions “cannot happen all at once” and should be accompanied by rigorous testing and quarantines of people found with the virus.
The debate over removing restrictions is in full swing in Europe, where the coronavirus outbreak exploded in late February in Italy. More than 70,000 people in Europe have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. But the spread of the virus is slowing, allowing Europeans to contemplate life beyond lockdowns.
In a sign of what may take place in many European countries, France on Monday laid out a reopening plan that takes heed of the advice from the world health agency.
On Monday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron extended his nation’s nationwide lockdown until May 11. France also reported 335 new deaths at its hospitals on Monday, bringing its total death count to 14,967.
“Yes, there is hope, but nothing is won yet in this battle,” Macron said in a televised address. “The epidemic is not under control.”
He said schools and more businesses will be allowed to reopen on May 11. He said it was important to reopen schools because many children do not have access to technology to do online classes and many parents are unable to help children stuck at home.
But he said places where people congregate – such as restaurants, bars, cinemas and theaters – will have to remain closed longer and that big events such as festivals will remain closed until mid-July.
“The 11th of May will be a day marking a new era,” he said.
Before the restrictions are lifted, he said France will take steps to stock up on medical equipment, such as ventilators and medical masks, and prepare to track the virus by widespread testing, especially of those considered more vulnerable to the virus, and by asking infected people to be monitored via a smartphone app.
But he said it was too soon to say when life will get back to normal. He said the pandemic will only be overcome once a vaccine is developed or scientists and doctors find a way to treat Covid-19 patients.
“You are asking when we will see the end of the tunnel? When can we get back to a sense of normal?” he said. “To be perfectly honest, we have no clear-cut answers.”
“We will prevail,” the French president said, “but in the meantime we will have to live with the virus by our sides.”
In a weekend interview with Bild, a German tabloid newspaper, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said elderly people and those with underlying health problems may be asked to self-isolate until a vaccine is found. She estimated a vaccine may not become available until the end of the year.
“Without a vaccine, we have to limit as much as possible contact with the elderly,” Von der Leyen said. “I know isolation is difficult and it is a burden, but it is a question of life or death, we have to remain disciplined and patient.”
She also said people should not begin making plans for summer vacations because it remains uncertain if travel restrictions will be in place this summer.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is expected to release guidelines this week on how countries should lift restrictions. The commission is likely to urge EU members to coordinate the easing of restrictions and to be prepared for an increase in infections. Each country, nonetheless, will do as it wants. The EU has restricted travel from outside its external borders and it has not said when they may be reopened.
Restrictions are being softened in places. On Tuesday, Austria is preparing to open up many businesses and Denmark is sending children back to school on Wednesday.
The biggest surprise – and controversy – is a decision by Spain’s government to ease restrictions a month after it imposed a nationwide lockdown and two weeks after it closed all but essential services. On Monday, some nonessential sectors, such construction sites and factories, were allowed to resume activity.
This move comes less than two weeks after the country recorded its worst single-day death total of 950 fatalities and even as Spain continues to report hundreds of new deaths each day. On Monday, Spain registered 517 new deaths, bringing its total toll 17,489.
“I want to be very clear,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Sunday. “We are not entering a phase of de-escalation. The state of emergency is still in force and so is the lockdown. The only thing that has come to an end is the two-week extreme economic hibernation period.”
He said the crisis “threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country.”
Across Europe, leaders have come under intense scrutiny for how they have handled the outbreak, but Sanchez is one of Europe’s only national leaders to see his popularity sink during this crisis. His government was criticized for its hesitation to impose a lockdown and it was accused of mishandling the supply of medical equipment, leaving medical workers unprotected and not listening to health experts.
Now the Socialist prime minister’s decision to allow a limited reopening is being condemned by regional leaders in Barcelona and Madrid.
Quim Torra, the president of Catalonia who fell sick with the virus last month, said the central government was being “irresponsible and reckless” by letting people go back to work.
Torra has complained that the central government stopped Catalonia from closing its regional borders. The outbreak in Spain began in Madrid but it has also hit hard Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.
“The risk of an outbreak and a second lockdown is enormous,” Torra said. He added that Catalonia was considering imposing its own measures to keep people home.
Italy extended its nationwide lockdown until May 3, but it too is beginning to ease some restrictions with bookstores and stationary outlets allowed to reopen this week. In Veneto, a region next to hard-hit Lombardy, open-air markets were given the green light and people were told they can now go beyond the vicinity of their homes for exercise, such as jogs and walks.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.