Europe arms itself in race against the third wave

A police officer walks past an empty square in the centre of Athens, Greece, during lockdown

A police officer walks past an empty square in the centre of Athens, Greece, during lockdown - Credit: PA

After a slow start, millions of people across EU countries are now receiving their vaccine – with almost a quarter of people across the bloc having had at least one dose of a Covid-19 shot.

That relatively good news – though vaccine progress still lags far behind that of the UK – is marred by a third wave of coronavirus sweeping across much of Europe. Both the severity of that wave and the countries’ responses to it have differed dramatically, though.

Below we summarise the situation in several of the larger nations, and those that are faring particularly well, and badly.

Hungary

Unlike most EU countries, Hungary has secured vaccine supply from both Russia and China to top up the doses it gets through the EU system. 

The gamble seems to be paying off – Hungary has vaccinated a greater proportion of its population than most other EU nations.

The good news ends there, though: Hungary is experiencing a severe third wave and despite its high vaccination rate is seeing its highest hospitalisation and death rates of the crisis so far and among the highest in the world.

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In a big to tackle this rolling wave, the country is more than four weeks into national lockdown measures.

The country’s authoritarian government is also facing charges of obstructionism, having blocked media access to hospitals, prompting a fierce public row.

Italy

Italy’s new prime minister, the former European Central Bank chair Mario Draghi, is undertaking what experts warn is a “gamble” and beginning to lift the country’s lockdown restrictions – despite the country still struggling to contain a third wave in many regions, with thousands of new cases being recorded each day.

Nonetheless, travel restrictions will be lifted, shops and restaurants will be allowed to open (but with outdoor eating and drinking) and even cinemas and theatres will resume their activities.There is suspicion among infectious disease experts that the reopening is more about political pressure – and handling economic damage – than driven by the science, especially given Italy’s relatively low rate of vaccinations so far.

France

The dominant strain in France – and in many of other EU countries – is now the B117 one, sometimes known as the ‘Kent variant’ or, in Europe, the ‘UK variant’. This is the more infectious and more deadly strain that the UK government blamed for its winter wave, and seems likely to become the dominant strain across the continent, at least for the moment.

France is slowly emerging from severe lockdown restrictions intended to curb a deadly third wave – but a 7pm curfew will not be lifted at this stage, as France reopens far more slowly than Italy.

Primary and nursery schools reopened this week after being closed for three weeks, and travel between regions will be permitted again next week. There are still concerns in the country that even this limited reopening is coming too soon, as ICUs struggle to contend with high numbers of patients. Media reports suggest as many as 6,000 people in France are currently battling coronavirus in intensive care wards.



Germany

Like France, Germany is battling a third wave of fuelled by the B117 variant, averaging around 20,000 new cases daily. It is managing these with regional lockdowns, closures, travel restrictions and curfews – but unlike many countries (including the UK) has published thresholds at which restrictions will be implemented.

Any cities that record more than 100 cases per 100,000 people for three consecutive days will be required to introduce a seven-day emergency break lockdown, and if cases are above 165 per 100,000 schools will close too. All but one of the country’s regions are above the emergency threshold, and around half above the higher threshold that will close schools.

Despite its vaunted pharmaceutical sector, Germany is slightly below the EU average on vaccination.

The government says the new emergency restrictions and lockdowns could continue through to June.

Greece

Facing the prospect of another disrupted season for its crucial tourism industry, Greece is keen to lift its restrictions and signal to the world it is open for business (or relaxation) – announcing earlier this week it would accept stamped NHS vaccination cards in lieu of official digital vaccine passports for would-be visitors to its islands.

One particular problem with the ‘open for business’ impression is that Greece this week became another European country to record at least one case of the so-called Indian variant, which is causing particular concern as it is a double mutation, though it is not yet known whether it is more infectious or deadlier.

Sweden

Sweden’s government has famously taken a different approach to the pandemic than other nations, having still not required shops or restaurants to close at any stage.

It is not clear the approach is working: Sweden’s third wave means the country is recording more than 800 cases per 100,000 people (eight times Germany’s threshold for restrictions) and the country has this year introduced some limited restrictions, in contrast to its previously entirely voluntary approach.

Shops now have limits on the number of customers allowed indoors, restaurants and bars are required to close at 8.30pm and several regions have introduced rules requiring masks indoors. The moves were introduced in part because compliance with voluntary measures had fallen over the course of the year – with polling suggesting the number of people who thought compliance had been ‘good’ or ‘very good’ dropping from 72% to around 40%.

Spain

While other countries battle their third wave, Spain is officially facing a fourth – though it is not at present as severe as that faced by many other European nations, with cases now a little over 250 per 100,000 people, a level classed as very high risk.

The country is, however, starting to see increasing prevalence of the B117 variant, though it is not yet clear whether it has become Spain’s dominant strain. However, the case rate does not seem to be increasing as much as it did in prior waves, and there are signs the vaccine rollout is helping, as the average age of ICU patients begins to drop (suggesting older adults are protected). Just over one in four Spanish adults have received at least one vaccine shot.

Cyprus

Cyprus – which had just been starting to see a mini-tourism boost thanks to vaccinated holidaymakers from Israel – has gone back into lockdown for at least two weeks, with a nightly curfew, residents allowed just one trip a day, and gyms, restaurants and more closed. Case rates are just under 1,000 per 100,000 people – meaning around one in a hundred people in Cyprus currently 
have the virus, and less than a quarter of the population has had a dose of the vaccine.

The lockdown has come as a blow as few tourists will wish to come to a locked-down country, but authorities have framed it as a bid to protect the summer season.

The country is hoping to use the time bought by the lockdown to vaccinate enough residents to prevent a more severe summer wave.

Denmark
One of the few brighter spots across Europe – the country’s cases are below 100 in 100,000 and lockdown restrictions are gradually being lifted, with bars, restaurants, cafes and museums reopened last week.

The lockdown had been introduced on Christmas Day of 2020, in response to the spread of B117 across Denmark and much of the rest of Europe. In line with many other European countries, around a quarter of Danes have had at least one vaccine shot.

What are your experiences of Europe's handling of the coronavirus pandemic? Email letters@theneweuropean.co.uk

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