Authorities in several European countries have lifted coronavirus restrictions too “brutally”, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, as they are witnessing a rise in cases “likely” caused by a more transmissible COVID-19 strain.
Speaking on Tuesday at a news conference in Moldova, WHO Europe director Hans Kluge said to be “optimistic, but vigilant” about the pandemic’s development in Europe, adding that cases were on the rise in 18 out of 53 states in the region.
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“The countries where we see a particular increase are the United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, France, Italy and Germany,” Kluge said. “Those countries are lifting the restrictions brutally from too much to too few,” he added.
According to the WHO database, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Europe fell sharply after a peak at the end of January, but has been on the rise again since early March. Over the past seven days, more than 5.1 million new cases and 12,496 deaths have been reported in the WHO’s European region.
In France, infections have risen by more than a third in the week since the government ended most COVID restrictions last Monday.
While in Germany, despite a new daily record of nearly 300,000 infections on Friday, the government let national legislation enabling coronavirus restrictions expire over the weekend. Most German states, which have considerable leeway on applying measures, have however maintained restrictions.
In Italy, the government announced on Thursday it would phase out almost all restrictions by May 1 despite rising cases. And in the United Kingdom, where one in 20 people are currently infected, the government removed the last of its international travel restrictions on Friday.
Faced with its own surging cases, Austria announced over the weekend it would reimpose rules requiring FFP2 face masks – just weeks after lifting the measure.
Kluge and other epidemiologists noted that rising cases were partly due to the spread of the highly contagious BA.2 sub-lineage of the Omicron variant which has become dominant in many countries. It does not appear to cause more severe disease compared with other strains.
Sometimes called “stealth Omicron” because it is more difficult to detect, BA.2 is estimated to be about 30 percent more contagious than its predecessor BA.1.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the United Kingdom’s University of Warwick, said the rising cases in Europe were due to a combination – “a perfect storm” – of three factors: the lifting of restrictions, waning immunity after vaccination and the BA.2 sub-variant.
“Removing restrictions has fuelled the spread of BA.2 and could also lead to the generation of other variants,” he told the AFP news agency.