Rising European Cases Raise Doubts Over End to Lockdowns

Rising European Cases Raise Doubts Over End to Lockdowns
John Follain, Patrick Donahue and Alessandro Speciale

(Bloomberg) --

A rise in new coronavirus infections in Germany, Italy and Spain is raising questions about the speed with which Europe can begin to relax its stringent restrictions on public life.

Germany’s new virus cases climbed the most in five days, according to figures Thursday from Johns Hopkins University. Italy said on Wednesday that it recorded 3,836 new infections, the highest in three days, while in Spain they rose the most in four days. The U.K. reported a record number of deaths as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who remains in intensive care after contracting the virus, showed signs of improvement.

“The number of new cases compels us to say that we have to keep our guard high, and maintain the behavior recommended by the experts to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Angelo Borrelli, head of Italy’s civil protection agency. Italy plans to extend its nationwide lockdown by two weeks, daily La Stampa reported Thursday.

The increase in cases complicates efforts by European leaders to try and gradually ease the strict rules that have been put in place to slow the march of the pathogen. The restrictions are having a devastating impact on economies across the region, and countries like Germany and Italy are starting to look at if and how they can begin to relax some of the curbs.

The impact of the lockdowns is becoming starkly evident, even in the region’s biggest economies. German output is expected to slump almost 10% in the April-June period, the most since records for quarterly data began in 1970, while the French economy shrank the most since World War II in the first quarter.

For Italy, the weakest of the continent’s large economies and the country where the restrictions have been in place the longest, the impact is set to be even more dramatic.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is preparing for a gradual exit from containment measures over the next several months, with some companies and shops possibly reopening as soon as early next week and other firms returning to work beginning May 4.

Schools in Italy will likely remain closed until September. Subsequent steps to ease restrictions will depend on the spread of the disease remaining under control. The lockdown, in place since early March, has closed all non-essential activities and banned most movement.

Decisive Days

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to consult with regional premiers on April 15 on how soon and to what extent current restrictions can be eased.

“We have had the first bits of positive news but it’s much too early to be over-confident or complacent,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Thursday on DLF radio. “The days over Easter will be decisive and only then will we know whether we can begin with any easing.”

Economic and social life will not be fully ramped up right from the start but it will be a step-by-step process, Altmaier said. Otherwise, there is a danger restrictions will have to be reimposed if the virus spread intensifies again, he warned.

The timing of the end to the unprecedented restrictions imposed on hundreds of millions of Europeans is pitting government authorities against public health officials, who say talk of an exit is too early as the hardest-hit nations are only beginning to slow the spread of the disease.

After the emergence of new infections on Wednesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned countries not to rush into lifting restrictions.

“Based on the available evidence, it is currently too early to start lifting all community and physical distancing measures” in Europe, the agency said. “Sustained transmission of the virus is to be expected if current interventions are lifted too quickly.”

The continent has been hit hard, suffering more than 65% of worldwide deaths and Spain, Italy, France and Germany trailing only the U.S. in infections.

Careful Merkel

Merkel has been careful to say that while her government is looking at options for re-opening, for now citizens should remain indoors. Restrictive measures in the country ban gatherings of more than two people, with exceptions for families.

France, which has reported more than 112,000 infections, plans to extend confinement rules beyond April 15, and President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation on Monday for the third time since the virus outbreak.

In Spain, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will ask parliament on Thursday for approval to extend a state of emergency through April 25. The country will return to normal life gradually after that, although experts are still working on how that process will work, Maria Jesus Montero, budget minister and government spokeswoman, told broadcaster Antena 3.

The European Commission warned against hasty exits from mass isolation, saying that such measures can be reversed only when the disease’s spread has “significantly decreased for a sustained period of time.”

“Any level of (gradual) relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases,” the Commission said, according to a draft of an internal memo seen by Bloomberg.

(Updates with German figures starting in second paragraph)

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