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Countries across Europe impose curbs to slow new Covid-19 wave

Several European countries are reimposing restrictions in a bid to dampen down a worrying rise in Covid-19 cases. Governments are also taking more measures to encourage more people to get vaccinated against the virus.

Countries across Europe impose curbs to slow new Covid-19 wave
People queue up in front of a bar, in Eindhoven, The Netherlands as the country on Friday became the first country in Europe to impose a new partial lockdown. Photo: Rob Engelaar/ANP/AFP

What is the situation in Europe?

The weekly number of coronavirus cases across Europe has been on the rise since early October and now stands at levels unseen since the start of the pandemic.

Over the past seven days 2,125,775 cases have been registered, a daily average of 303,682, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

That broke the previous European record of 1,988,507 cases logged in the week of November 2-8 2020.

The latest figures also represent a 13-percent rise on the previous week. Five countries — Britain, Germany, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine — logged rises of more than 50 percent.

It is worth noting that many more Covid tests are being carried out now than was the case when the pandemic first hit the continent in early 2020.

The above chart from Our World in Data shows the seven-day rolling average for daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people in the countries covered by The Local.

Are all parts of Europe affected equally?

The overall figures hide national differences which are due in large part to differences in the speed of the vaccination roll-out and the social health measures imposed.

In Britain, for example, though Covid cases numbers are on the rise, high vaccination rates have kept additional hospitalisations down, said Yves Coppieters, epidemiologist at the ULB university in Brussels. The same is not true of Eastern European countries, he added.

In countries such as Spain and Portugal, which are very well vaccinated, or indeed Italy which has taken tough measures, the rebound is still not very visible, he added.

France is somewhere in between, with a rise in cases “but less strong”, Coppieters told AFP.

On Friday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said the situation was continuing to worsen in the EU.

Of the 27 member states the centre placed Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia in the category of highest concern.

How are countries responding to the surge? 

For most European nations the main goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible. 

In France, where infection rates remain comparatively low, the requirement to show a Covid-19 health pass has never been lifted. But the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron, on Tuesday said that health passes would on December 15th cease to be valid for over-65 year-olds who are eligible to have a booster shot but who have not yet had one. 

Some countries are going further, starting to reinstate some of the restrictions on movement which populations had hoped were over.

The government of Russia said on Friday it had submitted to parliament two bills that will introduce mandatory health passes to access restaurants and public transport, amid a new wave of coronavirus cases. Health professionals there will also have to wear masks and be tested for Covid twice a week.

In Austria, the government said it wants a nationwide lockdown for those not vaccinated against or recovered from the coronavirus.

Only around 65 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in Austria, a rate described by Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg as “shamefully low”.

In The Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Western Europe’s first partial lockdown of the winter, with at least three weeks of Covid curbs on restaurants, shops and sporting events.

A side-effect of the tougher measures could be more public discontent.

Several hundred protesters angered by Rutte’s announcement gathered in The Hague afterwards, with police firing water cannon at them.

Denmark on Friday brought back its coronapas, with evidence of a negative test result or vaccination required to enter bars, restaurants, cafés and nightclubs, as well as large events. 

In Norway, new prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, has made a similar move, on Friday announcing that municipalities across the country would be able to bring back the Covid-19 app, with the worst-hit city, Tromsø, saying that a valid pass would be required from Tuesday.

Other countries remain in wait-and-see mode. 

In Germany the parties likely to form the next government are considering measures such as restricting access to certain facilities only to those who are vaccinated or have recovered from the disease within the last six months – a system known as “2G” in Germany. 

The parties also want to tighten testing requirements for employers, and reintroduce free rapid antigen tests – a measure that had been in place over the summer but was scrapped in mid-October to incentivise vaccination.

In Spain, where face masks are still required indoors, some regions are starting to warn that it might be necessary to bring in new measures, with the government of Navarre even floating requiring a Covid-19 pass to enter bars and cafés, a measure that was barely used in Spain during previous waves. 

Only one country, Sweden, is actually loosening measures to control the virus. 

Going, as ever, against the herd, Sweden this month stopped requiring those who are fully vaccinated to get tested if they experience Covid-19 symptoms, and stopped offering them free PCR tests. 

This World in Data chart shows the proportion of the population in each of the countries covered by The Local that is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with Spain topping the list, almost twenty percentage points above vaccination laggard Austria.

Will we see the death rate rise?

Last week the WHO’s Europe chief warned that the current trajectory of Covid in Europe could mean “another half a million Covid-19 deaths” by February.

A daily average of 4,031 coronavirus related deaths have been recorded over the past week — a 10-percent rise on the previous week and an 18-percent rise on the week before that. A year ago the daily average was 3,785 fatalities.

“We are seeing a wave of infections due to the Delta variant and lower temperatures, but vaccination should prevent a correlation with hospitalisations,” said Coppieters. “There will inevitably be great heterogeneity between countries depending on vaccination coverage.”

These four Our World in Data charts demonstrate the impact of rising vaccination rates on ICU admissions and new deaths from the virus.

Will vaccinating more people be enough?

No, according to Coppieters. “The key is of course to vaccinate those most at risk to achieve herd immunity,” he told AFP. “For the rest of the population, we must above all maintain barrier measures, indoor ventilation and a testing policy,” he added.

Last week the WHO highlighted those methods, calling for continued vaccinations along with widespread use of masks and social distancing measures.

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”