European countries set to extend lockdowns as Covid cases surge

Germany is preparing to extend its nationwide lockdown until the end of January, as governments across Europe consider prolonging or strengthening restrictions to battle highly contagious mutations of coronavirus.

“Premature easing would set us back very far again,” Markus Söder, the premier of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, one of Germany’s governing parties, said on Sunday, after the heads of the country’s 16 states met virtually over the weekend.

“The numbers are simply still far too high,” he added. “As annoying as it is, we have to stay consistent and not give up too soon again.”

The tally of new infections in Germany has fallen off the record-highs registered in the run-up to Christmas, when the country had roughly 30,000 cases per day.

Just over 10,300 infections were reported on Sunday, although the number of submissions from test centres is always lower at the weekend.

However the seven-day infection rate in Germany stands at more than 140 per 100,000 residents, almost triple the level at which policymakers have suggested it would be safe to ease restrictions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to meet the heads of Germany’s states on Tuesday, to decide whether to extend the current lockdown, which expires on January 10.

In the UK, where the seven-day rolling rate stands at almost 400 infections per 100,000 inhabitants, prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that the UK may have to impose stricter measures and delay the opening of schools.

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“We are entirely reconciled to doing what it takes to get the virus down,” he told the BBC. “That may involve tougher measures in the weeks ahead.”

On Saturday, the British territory of Gibraltar also imposed a two-week lockdown, after its chief minister said the virus was “propagating more quickly than we can control it”.

In France, the government on Saturday moved a nightly curfew in 15 departments in the east and south-east back from 8pm to 6pm. The incidence of coronavirus in those areas has been climbing more rapidly than elsewhere, prompting local leaders to call for a harsher lockdown.

The government has also delayed the planned reopening of museums and cinemas, promised for January 7, while restaurants and bars nationally remain closed. Schools will reopen after Christmas holidays on Monday.

French health ministry official Jérôme Salomon said on Sunday that the full impact of people seeing each other during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays would not translate into new hospitalisations until next week, adding that the “situation was worrying”, with daily infections already hovering close to 15,000 compared with 10,000 in early December.

“We have another four months of collective effort ahead of us,” Mr Salomon told the Journal du Dimanche.

As top health officials in Ireland warned that the virus was “out of control” in the country, deputy premier Leo Varadkar said further restrictions could not be ruled out even after Dublin sharpened its latest national lockdown last week for the second time in eight days.

“I think the situation is very alarming. We can see hospitalisations increasing at a rapid rate, numbers in ICU increasing too,” Mr Varadkar told national broadcaster RTE on Sunday. “We do need to turn off the tap. If patients continue to be admitted at the rate they’re currently being admitted, then we’ll run into difficulties later on in January.”

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Mr Varadkar said the “explosion of cases” since Christmas had gone beyond any modelling. Irish health officials reported a record 3,394 cases on Saturday — after they warned that the figures in coming days would reflect the delayed reporting of more than 9,000 new infections. 

Ireland’s 14-day incidence rate per 100,000 population was 381.6 on January 1 — up from 102.4 a fortnight earlier. 

The extension of lockdowns in Europe comes amid harsh criticism of the EU’s handling of vaccine procurement and distribution.

While the US has administered more than 4m doses of Covid-19 vaccines, and the UK has exceeded 1m, Germany has managed 238,000, while France has injected only about 350.

Mr Söder told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the EU had “ordered too few doses and relied on the wrong manufacturers”. He called for vaccination efforts to be “massively accelerated”.

His comments came after Ugur Sahin, chief executive of BioNTech (the company that developed the only EU-authorised vaccine to date), told Der Spiegel magazine that “the process in Europe certainly wasn’t as fast and straightforward as in other countries”.


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