A sharp rise in the number of coronavirus infections over the past two weeks has put European governments on high alert as holidaymakers return home to big cities and teachers and pupils prepare for the start of the school year after months of disruption.
But leaders are eager to avoid reimposing drastic controls on freedom of movement because they want to allow economies to recover from the deepest recession since the second world war. France has opted to control the spread of the virus rather than attempt to eliminate it completely, and French president Emmanuel Macron has said there is no such thing as a “zero risk” society.
Before the latest upsurge, strict national lockdowns in the spring sharply reduced the spread of Covid-19 in Europe. But Spain in particular the virus is now returning rapidly, with 8,000 new infections reported on Friday alone.
According to the latest figures from the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Spain recorded 153 cases per 100,000 in the previous 14 days — compared with 121 for Malta, 96 for Luxembourg, 87 for Romania, 60 for France, 56 for Belgium, 22 for the UK and 20 for Germany.
Spain is not alone. On Saturday, Germany recorded its highest daily infection rate since April, with 2,034 new cases.
The Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s main public health authority, said the cumulative incidence of Covid-19 over the past seven days had risen sharply across all of Germany’s 16 regions, a trajectory it described as “alarming”. It blamed the surge on family get-togethers and parties, and on young people returning from holiday.
France has also reported a rapid rise in the number of those testing positive, announcing more than 4,000 new cases on both Thursday and Friday, the highest daily totals since the easing of the country’s lockdown in mid-May.
Most of those infected are young adults who tend not to suffer severe symptoms, the French health authorities say, which is one reason why the number of those being hospitalised or needing intensive care has yet to show a substantial increase.
However, Olivier Véran, France’s health minister, said in an interview published on Sunday that infections were already spreading between age groups and rising among the elderly in the Marseille area. “We have to avoid this situation at all costs,” he said. “It would put our health system under pressure and be extremely problematic.”
In Italy, new daily cases have also increased, reaching 947 on Friday, due to more travel and nightlife activities over the summer holidays.
Even Greece, which has avoided the worst of the pandemic so far, reported a record 269 infections on Thursday as young Greeks returned from holidays on the Aegean Islands with their crowded beach bars and private parties.
Spain’s death rate is already rising, which makes the current surge in infection rates particularly alarming given the weeks-long lag between contracting the virus and death in many cases.
“If we let transmission keep on rising . . . we are going to end up with many people hospitalised, many people in intensive care, and many deaths,” Fernando Simón, the doctor leading the Spanish government’s battle against the virus, said on Thursday. “We know that each youth can infect family members and ends up creating cases involving older people.”
Some experts, however, are calling for calm, arguing that there is little risk of reaching the mortality peaks of hundreds of deaths per day several European countries experienced in March and April.
Martin Blachier, an epidemiologist at Public Health Expertise in Paris, said his consultancy estimated that there were at present about 20,000 new infections a day in France (including the thousands confirmed by testing), compared with 400,000 a day at the height of the pandemic
Increased mask-wearing regulations — such as this week’s order from the French government that pupils wear them in classrooms — would help control the spread of infection, he said.
Olivier Boché, a doctor at the Hôpital Foch west of Paris, said on Friday there had been no Covid-19 patients in intensive care at his hospital recently compared with about 60 at the peak, but said the government was understandably anxious about the public reaction to the increased number of infections.
“The government is nervous the virus could return because the management of the crisis at the start was so poor,” he said. “All the measures [now] are very restrictive and everyone wants to protect themselves politically as well as from a health standpoint.”
Belgium has emerged as a rare example of a European country that appeared to be bringing the latest upsurge under control. Sophie Wilmès, the prime minister, said the situation was now “stabilising and improving” after outbreaks in several parts of the country triggered renewed tightening of restrictions.
In the UK, coronavirus infections remain fairly stable across the country, according to official estimates. Partial lockdowns have been imposed locally in places where cases are rising fast, particularly across northern England.
“I think we are on a slight upward trend nationally but outside the infection hotspots it is probably flat,” said a senior government scientist.
Others are less sanguine. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, told reporters last week after the number of daily cases in Germany had doubled in three weeks: “This development can’t be allowed to continue, we must contain it.” She ruled out any further relaxation of the current restrictions on public life.
Mr Macron has taken a similarly cautious view, but made clear that any new lockdowns in France were likely to be local rather than national.
“We have very localised strategies, as we did in Mayenne, including a targeted reconfinement that could be imposed if the situation demanded it,” he said in an interview in Paris Match. “But you can’t shut the country down because the collateral damage from a lockdown is considerable.”
Ireland tightened restrictions for the second time in a fortnight last week amid surging infections, just as the government prepared to reopen schools shut since March.
“We’re acting now in a very targeted way essentially to avoid a full national lockdown in time to come,” said Stephen Donnelly, the health minister. “We are asking the Irish people to do very serious things, right across our country.”
Victor Mallet in Paris, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Daniel Dombey in Madrid, Kerin Hope in Athens, Michael Peel in Brussels, Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan, Arthur Beesley in Dublin and Clive Cookson in London