Europe struggles to free Christmas from Covid’s shackles

Europeans who were looking forward to Christmas and new year holidays free from burdensome Covid-19 lockdowns have been brought abruptly down to earth in the past week, with persistently high infection rates across the continent obliging governments from London to Athens to strengthen or maintain restrictions on free movement. 

Belgium has extended curbs through the holidays and will allow people to invite only one adult friend — known as a “cuddle contact” — to their homes, or two if they live alone. France has cancelled a reprieve for New Year’s Eve gatherings and will impose an 8pm-6am curfew from Tuesday.

Italy, which at the weekend overtook the UK to register the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe of 64,036, has imposed some of the continent’s strictest Christmas travel restrictions that will ban Italians from moving between regions from December 20 to January 6. Greece will remain under lockdown until January 7. In the UK, infections have been rising and there is speculation that London and other regions will face a tightening of restrictions to be announced this week.

But it is Germany, which managed the first wave of the pandemic in the spring better than most of its neighbours, that faces one of the most serious threats from the second wave as governments seek to avoid a repeat of the US Thanksgiving celebrations last month that provoked a new surge of infections and deaths.

Germany had initially planned to relax the partial shutdown imposed at the start of November for the festive season. It is now doing the opposite, decreeing a much more draconian lockdown that will come into force on Wednesday and last for three-and-a-half weeks. “We have been forced to act,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor, told reporters on Sunday after a meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 states.

The trigger has been a sudden, dramatic worsening of the coronavirus situation, with a record of almost 30,000 new infections and 598 deaths from Covid-19 on Friday.

“Corona is out of control,” said Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, on Sunday. “We are at five minutes to midnight.”

Germany imposed a “lockdown-lite” in November that led to the closure of restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms, though most businesses and schools stayed open. But Ms Merkel said on Sunday that those measures had “not been enough” and infections were again growing exponentially.

The leaders decreed that, from Wednesday, most shops and schools would shut. Companies are to encourage their employees to work from home wherever possible. Curbs on private social gatherings of more than five people will remain in place, though they will be slightly relaxed between December 24 and 26 so families can spend Christmas together.

Chart showing that test positivity remains in the double digits in many European countries, and declines have stalled in some places

Public consumption of alcohol will also be proscribed from Wednesday, and big public gatherings and firework displays banned on New Year’s Eve.

The shift in the rhetoric has been striking: even just a few days ago, authorities were discussing loosening the current restrictions for Christmas and the new year. Now there is a growing realisation that all public life must be wound down over the festive season and beyond.

France was quick to impose restrictions as the second wave took hold in the autumn weather after the summer holidays, and until the beginning of December seemed on track to substantially relax the controls for Christmas. Jean Castex, prime minister, boasted last week that France’s infection rate on December 10 was lower than that of Germany, Italy and the US, having been higher than all of them six weeks earlier. 

Chart showing that Covid-19 hospital occupancy is now falling in many European countries, but levels remain high, risking crisis in the event of a winter surge

But the slowdown in the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in France has stalled and the figure remains stubbornly high at about 14,000 a day — nearly three times the target set by President Emmanuel Macron for a relaxation. Health officials blame a combination of the cold weather and increased contact between people at home, in shops and at work. 

That prompted Mr Castex to announce the new nationwide, night-time curfew and to declare that cinemas, theatres and sports centres would not be able to reopen on Tuesday as planned — although the French will be able to travel away from their homes and will not be required to fill in government forms justifying each movement. Police have made almost 3m checks since October, and more than 285,000 people have been fined for breaking the rules. 

Health minister Olivier Véran said: “One new French person is hospitalised every minute thanks to Covid infection.” 

Even in Spain, where the infection rate has descended steadily since the country imposed curfews and travel restrictions in late October, Pedro Sánchez, prime minister, warned citizens on Friday not to let their guard down during the festive season. “Although we have a level of slightly more than 180 [infections per 100,000 people],” he said, “we should be at 25.” 

Rising infections will lead inevitably in two to three weeks to more hospitalisations and more deaths during a season when medical facilities are already under pressure, and governments are anxious that Christmas festivities will again allow the pandemic to surge out of control. 

“People should really be very, very sensible over that period and over this whole period of risk because this is a very risky period for us,” said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, last week. 

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London, Michael Peel in Brussels, Kerin Hope in Athens, Daniel Dombey in Madrid and Miles Johnson in Rome

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