Belgium and Greece have joined a growing number of European countries that have imposed or are preparing tough new social curbs to quell a resurgence of coronavirus.
The European Commission warned on Friday of a “real risk” that healthcare systems on the continent would be overwhelmed by soaring case numbers, as Germany pledged to offer intensive care beds to patients from the worst-hit countries.
The moves capped a grim week for Europe as countries including France and Germany hurried to reintroduce significant shutdown measures lifted after the Covid-19 pandemic hit in spring. Paris recorded heavy traffic jams on Thursday night as residents fled the capital for less urban areas, in the hours before the new French restrictions came into force.
Belgium’s coronavirus rulemaking committee was due to meet on Friday afternoon, amid expectations that the country will move towards the partial lockdown imposed by its French neighbour.
Covid-19 infection numbers have continued to rise in Belgium since Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister, warned this month the country was facing a “tsunami” of cases.
Greece on Friday imposed lockdowns in Thessaloniki, its second-largest city, and two other regions. Cases have been rising for weeks and the government has said the average age of those being infected suggests a correlation with “gatherings for entertainment, sport and other activities”.
Infection rates in Belgium, headquarters of the EU, are now the worst of the 31 countries comprising the European Economic Area and the UK, according to data published on Friday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
Belgium had a 14-day cumulative number of 1,600 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, ahead of the Czech Republic on 1,512.7 and Luxembourg on 996. France had 706 cases, the UK 438 and Germany 182.
Stella Kyriakides, EU health commissioner, said the rising totals of cases, hospitalisations and deaths were “highly concerning” and put intense pressure on the ability of member states to deal with the patient numbers generated.
“There is a real risk now that health systems will be overwhelmed with the increasing number of cases,” Ms Kyriakides told reporters. “And we are looking at the European level to ensure there is as close as possible collaboration and solidarity, in order to be able to face the current situation.”
Jens Spahn, health minister of Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, vowed that his country would offer intensive care unit bed space as soon as asked by struggling fellow bloc members. “We will support [them] by taking patients into our ICU care facility as long as we can,” he told reporters.
Germany has ordered a shutdown from Monday of restaurants, bars and most public entertainment. Schools, daycare centres, hair salons and retailers will remain open.
France has closed bars and restaurants, as well as imposing travel restrictions and shutting is frontiers to non-EU travellers, after President Emmanuel Macron warned this week that a second Covid-19 wave would “probably be harder and more murderous than the first”.
In contrast to the spring lockdown, schools, factories and companies will stay open, reflecting a desire in Paris and other European capitals to limit the impact on education and the economy.