Countries and regions in Europe are toughening coronavirus restrictions amid a surge in fresh infections, with Wales imposing a “fire-break” lockdown of 14 days, Ireland announcing a nationwide “stay at home” order for six weeks and Belgium shutting down bars and restaurants for a month as authorities there warned of a possible “tsunami” of new COVID-19 cases.
The latest European measures on Monday came as the World Health Organization blamed the rise in northern hemisphere cases on countries’ failure to properly quarantine infected people.
According to the WHO, half of the 48 countries in its Europe region have seen a 50 percent rise in cases in the past week. With the continent firmly in the grip of a second wave of COVID-19, several countries have imposed curfews, while Wales and Ireland have become the first territories to reimpose lockdowns.
In a televised address on Monday, Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin announced the closure of non-essential retail, limiting restaurants and pubs to take away service and telling people not to travel more than five kilometres (three miles) from their home.
The travel restrictions, which will come into force from midnight on Wednesday, are among some of the toughest in Europe, and Martin said they were necessary as the “evidence of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead is now too strong”.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford said he was backing a short, sharp “firebreak” to slow the spread of COVID-19, and announced that all non-essential retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses will close for two weeks beginning at 6pm (17:00 GMT) on Friday – a lockdown similar in scope to the United Kingdom-wide measures imposed in March.
“This is the moment to come together to play our part in a common endeavour to do everything we can together to protect the NHS,” Drakeford said, referring to the state-run health service.
In Belgium, where the numbers of people admitted to hospital rose to 100 percent in just the last week, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke described the situation in the capital, Brussels, and in the south of the country as “the most dangerous in all of Europe”.
“We are the most affected region in all of Europe. We are really close to a tsunami,” he told broadcaster RTL, warning the new infections could overwhelm the healthcare system.
According to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Belgium has seen an average of 7,876 new infections a day in the past week, while 12,051 infections were recorded last Tuesday – the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan urged countries in Europe and North America to follow the example of Asian states by persevering with anti-COVID-19 measures and quarantining anyone who comes into contact with infected people.
If he could have one wish, he said at a virtual press briefing, it would be to ensure “every contact of a confirmed case is in quarantine for the appropriate period”.
“I do not believe that has occurred systematically, anywhere,” he told reporters, saying it was “a good part of the reason why we’re seeing such high numbers”.
“The countries in Asia, South Asia, the Western Pacific that have been successful to my mind have really continued to follow-through on those key activities,” he added.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also warned against people getting fed up with the pandemic and the measures imposed to control it.
“I know there’s fatigue but the virus has shown that when we let our guard down, it can surge back at breakneck speed and threaten hospitals and health systems,” he said.
The WHO’s plea for vigilance on Monday came as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide passed 40 million, with more than 1.1 million deaths. More than 250,000 of those fatalities have been in Europe.
Italy, the initial epicentre of Europe’s outbreak, also announced fresh curbs, including earlier closures for bars and restaurants and a push to increase working from home. In Poland, where about half the country is now designated as a coronavirus “red zone”, the government said the national stadium would double as a field hospital to help ease the strain on overwhelmed health facilities.
Several Spanish regions also toughened their coronavirus restrictions on Monday, with authorities in the northern region of Castile and Leon announcing the city of Burgos and nearby Aranda de Duero would be closed to all but essential travel from Tuesday night. The measure came after infection rates in the area surpassed 500 cases per 100,000 people.
Switzerland, meanwhile, made mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces and limited public gatherings after infections doubled over the last week. “The second wave is here, earlier and stronger than we expected, but we are prepared,” Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said.
France imposed its own overnight curfew from the weekend in nine cities including Paris, affecting 20 million people, with a record 32,400 new infections reported on Saturday, while the French presidency said President Emmanuel Macron’s wife, Brigitte Macron, will self-isolate for seven days after she came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“Brigitte Macron has no symptoms of the disease at this stage,” it said in a statement .
Slovenia has also followed suit with a curfew, with its roughly two million inhabitants forced to stay home between 9:00pm (19:00 GMT) and 6:00am (04:00 GMT) from Tuesday and banned from non-essential travel.
In Portugal, confirmed coronavirus cases passed 100,000 on Monday, with nearly 2,000 new infections in the past 24 hours, days after tough new measures to contain the disease came into force.
“Everyone’s tiredness is legitimate but it cannot legitimise failure,” the Secretary of State for health, Antonio Sales, told a news conference. “We continue to depend on each other – and our success is the success of Portugal.”