Authorities in several western European countries are gearing up for potential new restrictions to curb rising cases of the coronavirus, as the pandemic casts a looming shadow over the forthcoming winter.
The Netherlands is expected to announce evening closures for bars, restaurants and other outlets. Austria is weighing up lockdowns for unvaccinated people, while Germany’s health agency has called for large events to be cancelled.
It comes as infections are again sweeping across parts of Western Europe, despite relatively high vaccination rates.
While nations in Western Europe all have vaccination rates over 60% — and some like Portugal and Spain are much higher — that still leaves a significant portion of their populations without protection.
Netherlands: new restrictions anticipated
New measures to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases in The Netherlands are expected to be announced later on Friday when Prime Minister Mark Rutte makes a televised address.
Media reports say a partial lockdown is likely. Dutch broadcaster NOS, citing unnamed government sources, reported that the measures include bars, restaurants and non-essential stores being forced to close at 7 pm, with fans being barred from sports events.
The measures are due to be imposed for three weeks, beginning from Saturday evening, NOS says.
The government has not formally commented on the reports. Rutte is due to speak at 19.00 CET.
If confirmed, the ban on sports fans could mean the Dutch national team playing a World Cup qualifier against Norway on Tuesday night behind closed doors.
On Thursday the Dutch public health institute recorded 16,364 new positive tests in 24 hours — the highest number of any time during the pandemic that has killed more than 18,600 people in the Netherlands.
The rise in cases has put the country’s health care sector under renewed strain.
Last week, the government reintroduced orders to wear face masks in stores and expanded the use of the country’s COVID pass — which proves the holder has been fully vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 or has tested negative. Since then, cases have only increased.
Such moves carry political risks: thousands protested against the reintroduction of masks in The Hague last Sunday.
The Netherlands, where nearly 85% of adults are fully vaccinated, largely ended lockdown restrictions at the end of September.
Utrecht has cancelled Saturday’s annual Sinterklaas — the Dutch Father Christmas — event for children because of the rise in COVID-19 cases.
Germany: call for a ban on large events
Germany’s disease control centre is calling for people to cancel or avoid large events and to reduce their contact with others.
On Friday the Robert Koch Institute reported a rise in the infection rate to 263.7 new cases per 100,000 residents over seven days, up from 249.1 the previous day. Another 48,640 new cases were reported after the daily total topped 50,000 for the first time on Thursday.
In its weekly report released late on Thursday, the institute said it “urgently advises cancelling larger events if possible, but also reducing all other unnecessary contacts”. It added that if such events cannot be avoided, people should take a test before attending regardless of whether they are vaccinated.
Although the infection rate is not as high as in some other European countries, its relentless rise has set off alarm bells.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet the country’s 16 state governors to coordinate nationwide measures next week, and parliament is considering legislation to provide a new legal framework for winter restrictions.
Most German regions restrict access to many indoor facilities and events to people who have been vaccinated against the virus, have recovered from COVID-19 or recently received negative test results — with the latter category now excluded in some areas. But enforcement is often slack.
The vaccination campaign has been flagging recently, with slightly over two-thirds of the population fully vaccinated. Germany has so far resisted a move to make vaccinations compulsory for any professional group. Officials also want more people who were inoculated months ago to get booster jabs.
German cities went ahead with outdoor Carnival celebrations this week — but the head of Cologne’s party cancelled public appearances after testing positive.
Austria considers ‘lockdown for the unvaccinated’
Austria is considering imposing a lockdown on unvaccinated people. Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said this week that such a move was “probably unavoidable,” and that the unvaccinated face an “uncomfortable” winter, the Austria Press Agency reported.
Schallenberg added that he did not want to impose the measure on those who are fully jabbed.
“I don’t see why two-thirds should lose their freedom because one-third is dithering,” Schallenberg said. “For me, it is clear that there should be no lockdown for the vaccinated out of solidarity for the unvaccinated.”
The country’s worst-affected province said on Thursday that it plans to impose a lockdown on the unvaccinated next week. Upper Austria province has reported nearly 1,200 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week.
Governor Thomas Stelzer said the move will come into force “from Monday, provided that there is a legal green light from the federal government, or rather that the federal government creates the legal basis”.
Austria is seeing one of the most serious outbreaks in Western Europe. On Thursday, official figures showed 760.6 reported new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days — a rate three times that of neighbouring Germany.
A series of measures have already been taken in recent weeks in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 and encourage more people to get vaccinated. On Monday, new rules took effect barring unvaccinated people who haven’t recovered from an infection from restaurants, hotels, hairdressing salons and large public events.
‘Take precautionary measures now’, say experts
The World Health Organization said coronavirus deaths rose by 10% in Europe in the past week, an official declaring last week that the continent was “back at the epicentre of the pandemic”.
Much of the rise is being driven by spiralling outbreaks in Russia and Eastern Europe — where vaccination rates tend to be low — but countries in the west such as Germany and Britain recorded some of the highest new case tolls in the world.
The large number of unvaccinated people, combined with a widespread post-lockdown resumption of socialising as well as a slight decline in immunity for people jabbed months ago is driving up the pace of infections — according to Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at Exeter University College of Medicine and Health.
“We’ve got to take precautionary measures now, and the sooner you take precautionary measures the better,” he told Euronews last week.
“My advice is: if you haven’t been immunised, please do so, and you must get your seasonal influenza vaccine as well, wear your mask, wear an FFP2 mask now, and reduce your interactions in crowds. We need to suppress the rising number of cases.”
He argues that no single measure will control the pandemic: “To really control it, it has to be multi-layered … avoid crowds, avoid poorly ventilated places, be immunised, wear your mask,” he says.
Experts say countries can probably contain that latest surge in cases without resorting to stringent shutdowns that devastated economies, disrupted education and harmed people’s mental health.
But, they add, not all restrictions can be avoided and authorities must boost vaccination rates.
“I think the era of locking people up in their homes is over because we now have tools to control COVID — the testing, vaccines and therapeutics,” said Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. “So I hope people will do the things they have to do, like put on a mask.”