European politicians have long known there was a real danger of a second wave hitting the continent, but few predicted it would hit with the speed and ferocity seen in recent weeks.
The coronavirus resurgence that has forced EU countries into new lockdowns is being exacerbated by multiple failures, including premature lifting of restrictions, behavioural relaxation and poor communication by authorities, officials and experts say.
Countries including France, Germany, Ireland, Greece and Belgium have imposed tougher social curbs in response to soaring Covid-19 case numbers, but all face a formidable task stemming the infection’s spread as winter drives people indoors.
The speed and scale of Covid-19’s comeback has prompted urgent effort to understand why it has happened and what can be done about it. The answers could determine whether European nations and other countries — such as the US — are condemned to a perpetual series of rolling restrictions unless and until an effective vaccine is discovered and widely deployed.
“We now know more about the virus than we did in March and we have to use this knowledge to inform the policy,” said Muge Cevik, a clinician and researcher in virology at the UK’s University of St Andrews. “We know that certain activities are high-risk. We need to communicate this much more clearly to the public — and we need to avoid giving conflicting advice.”
Covid-19 cases have risen across Europe but prevalence is still much higher in some countries than others. Belgium is worst-affected of the 31 nations comprising the European Economic Area and the UK. Its 14-day cumulative number of 1,600 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people is more than 30 times that of Finland. France had 706 cases, the UK 438 and Germany 182.
The soaring infection numbers in some countries led Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, to warn last week of a “real risk” that healthcare systems would be “overwhelmed”. Hospital bed occupancy has doubled in less than two weeks in countries including Belgium, the Czech Republic and France, according to data published last week.
Germany has offered spare intensive care beds to patients from beleaguered fellow European states.
While international travel by holidaymakers during the summer played a role in carrying the disease around Europe, experts see other factors as of equal or greater importance. Flemming Konradsen of the University of Copenhagen’s global health department pointed to the lifting of lockdown measures in an effort to reignite economic activity; a spike in the cases among young people as high schools and universities returned; and movements of cross-border summer seasonal workers.
“The most important is the opening of institutions at the same time that you relaxed some of those protective measures,” he said. “The unifying feature is that we relaxed a lot; we had had enough Covid-19 . . . I think people had moved on.”
Denmark is one of a clutch of countries that are at the low end of infection rates in Europe, but Copenhagen is still acting now in an attempt to avoid an exponential rise in caseloads. The government has cut the size of public gatherings, introduced requirements for people to wear face masks in shops, and imposed earlier closing times for restaurants and bars.
In Finland, Outi Kuivasniemi, director for international affairs at the social affairs and health ministry, said her country was tightening rules in a locally targeted way even though national infection rates were still very low on the European scale. She said the recent increase in cases numbers had been driven by people gathering for sports events, church functions or family gatherings.
“We are sticking with a strategy where certain things are done at a national government level, but a large part of the decisions are at a regional or a county level, reflecting the specific circumstances in that area,” she said. “The dual aim is to protect the vulnerable and enable the economy.”
One widely-held concern among European officials — exemplified by protests in cities including Berlin, Hamburg and Madrid — is that public willingness to go along with the fresh restrictions will break down. Some people’s fear of the disease has reduced as they become more used to it, which means the government authorities are in a more difficult starting place compared with March or April.
Another related concern is that some authorities are still wedded to measures that give a false impression of risk. In Brussels, home of EU headquarters, the regional government has reintroduced a requirement to wear masks at all times outdoors — even though research suggests the chances of infection in uncrowded outdoor spaces is minimal. When Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, named her three priorities for staying safe last week, she mentioned avoiding poorly ventilated restricted indoor spaces last — yet studies indicate this is the single most important driver of infections.
Ms von der Leyen also attempted to strike a note of optimism in this grim moment, insisting that European countries had “all learned the lessons of the spring”. The last two months of the pandemic year of 2020 will test if she is right.
Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch in London