Schools, stores and beaches have reopened in several parts of Europe as the continent eases out of months of COVID-19 lockdowns amid ongoing mass vaccination efforts and falling infection rates.
Exhilarated Spaniards chanting “freedom” danced in the streets as a COVID-19 curfew ended in most of the country at the weekend, while Greece reopened public beaches – with deckchairs safely spaced – nursery, elementary and middle schools on Monday.
Ireland meanwhile lifted domestic travel restrictions and began a phased reopening of non-essential retail, and in Germany, a first weekend of summer sun lifted spirits after Health Minister Jens Spahn declared the third wave of the pandemic finally broken.
Germany will ease restrictions on people who have been fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus disease, lifting curfews and quarantine rules as well as the obligation to provide a negative test result to visit a hairdresser, zoo or to go shopping.
Cyprus was also set to ease restrictions on Monday and end a third partial lockdown, with a new coronavirus “safety pass” system to be rolled out to allow people to move freely.
The moves came alongside notes of caution, however, with both Spahn and Spanish Justice Minister Juan Carlos Campo warning the threat of the coronavirus persisted.
“The end of the state of emergency does not mean the end of restrictions. Far from it. The virus threat still exists,” Campo wrote in an opinion piece in Spanish newspaper El Pais. He urged Spaniards to behave “responsibly” as measures began to ease.
Spahn meanwhile warned the mood in Germany was “better than the reality” facing the country.
The national seven-day incidence of COVID-19 cases nationwide remains high at 119 per 100,000 people, he said, adding that made it “all the more important to keep up the speed of the vaccination campaign”.
UK to ease lockdown further
With 200 million vaccine doses delivered, the European Union is on track to achieve its goal of inoculating 70 percent of its adult population by summer, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted on Sunday.
Across the bloc, the seven-day incidence rate of COVID-19 is 185 per 100,000 people, according to Our World in Data.
That is far higher than in countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom, or the United States, all of which made quicker early progress in their vaccination drives.
In the UK, early orders and approval of vaccines and a decision to give first doses to as many people as possible have driven down infections and deaths far quicker than in other European nations.
That success has allowed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to press ahead with his multistep plan for easing England’s lockdown.
Johnson was expected on Monday to set out the next phase of his plan, which is expected to give the green light to “cautious hugging” and allowing pubs to serve customers pints inside after months of strict measures.
“The data reflects what we already knew – we are not going to let this virus beat us,” he said before an anticipated official announcement.
Vaccination efforts making headway
Vaccine deliveries were slower initially in the EU under its centralised procurement strategy.
But now, with shots from BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna relatively plentiful, vaccinations as a share of the population in Europe are growing while countries that made early advances see slowdowns as they encounter hesitancy among the unvaccinated.
Some 31.6 percent of adults in 30 European countries have received a first dose and 12 percent a full two-shot regime, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker showed.
France expects to give 20 million first injections by mid-May, and hit 30 million by mid-June.
With infection rates falling and occupancy in hospital intensive care units declining, France plans to start relaxing its curfew and allow cafés, bars and restaurants to offer outdoor service from May 19.
Picking and choosing
Improving supply has given countries greater freedom to adapt their strategies following reports of very rare, but sometimes fatal, blood clotting in people who received shots from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson (J&J).
Germany has decided to make the two vaccines available to anyone who wants them, as long as they have been advised by a doctor – an offer aimed at younger adults who would have to wait their turn otherwise.
Norway’s vaccine commission made a similar call on Monday, saying the AstraZeneca and J&J shots should be made available to volunteers. Some Italian regions are also offering both shots to people below 60.
With some governments shortening the gaps between doses, and plans for an EU digital “green pass” scheme in June for travellers to provide proof of vaccination or immunity, people cooped up for months are finally daring to make holiday plans.
“We’re pinning our hopes on tourism,” Nikos Venieris, who manages a beach in Alimos, an Athens suburb, told Reuters news agency.
Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece’s economy and jobs, and the country can ill afford another summer without visitors. Greece is lifting restrictions on vaccinated foreigners from May 15.