BERLIN (AP) – Fears rose on Thursday that Europe is running out of control over the autumn coronavirus epidemic as infections hit record daily levels in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland. France slapped a 9pm curfew in many of its larger cities, and Londoners faced new travel restrictions as governments imposed ever stricter measures.
New infections have surged across Europe in the last few weeks with the start of autumn, prompting authorities to start re-enforcing restrictions loosened during the summer. The Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Great Britain are among the countries of particular concern.
The head of the European office of the World Health Organization urged governments to be “uncompromising”
“These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, while wearing a mask. “It is therefore up to us to accept them while they are still relatively easy to follow instead of following the path of severity.”
Kluge cited epidemiological models that suggested that if 95% of people wore masks and followed other social distancing measures, Europe could avert around 281,000 deaths by February. But he warned that relaxing measures could lead to a fivefold increase in deaths by January.
European nations as a whole have seen nearly 230,000 confirmed deaths from the virus – more than the nearly 217,000 virus deaths reported in the United States so far, according to Johns Hopkins University data that experts agree underestimate the true impact of the pandemic.
European financial markets fell sharply on Thursday on fears that new restrictions on swaths of the region’s economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its strongest recession in modern history. Major equity indices were well over 2% lower in Europe.
While Germany, the most populous nation in the European Union, is still in relatively good condition, alarm bells are ringing there too. On Thursday, the National Disease Control Center reported 6,638 cases over a 24-hour span, surpassing the previous record of nearly 6,300 set in late March, although testing has increased dramatically since then.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed on Wednesday evening to tighten rules on the use of masks, have bars closed early and limit the number of people who can gather in areas where coronavirus infection rates are high. But those decisions “probably won’t be enough,” Merkel chief of staff Helge Braun told ARD television.
“We have to stop this exponential increase, the sooner the better,” Merkel said, noting that neighboring European countries must take “very drastic measures”.
This week the Netherlands closed bars and restaurants and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland closed schools. On Wednesday, the Czech Ministry of Health confirmed 9,544 new cases of the virus, over 900 more than the previous record. The government announced Thursday that the military will set up a virus hospital at the Prague trade fair center.
“We need to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We don’t have time. Prognosis is not good. “
The governor of the German state of Bavaria said his region has received a request to treat Czech COVID-19 patients.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has put 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, under 9pm. curfew starting on Saturday for at least four weeks and possibly until December 1st.
Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said nearly half of its ICU beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with more hospital beds filling up quickly.
“It’s kind of a spring tide that hits everyone at the same time,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our monitoring policies. It was the private sphere, the holiday events.”
The British government moved London on Thursday and half a dozen other areas in the country’s second highest virus risk level, meaning millions of people will be prevented from meeting people outside their families and asked to minimize travel.
“I know these restrictions are difficult for people. I hate that we have to bring them in, “British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.” But it is essential that we involve them both to protect people and to prevent greater economic damage in the future. ”
WHO official Kluge said most of the spread is occurring in homes, indoor spaces and communities that fail to comply with protective measures.
“The evolution of the epidemic in Europe is of great concern,” he said. “But we shouldn’t hold back with relatively smaller actions to avoid the same very painful damaging actions we saw in the first peak.”
Just as Macron’s government faces the resurgence of infections, French police raided Thursday the homes of the former prime minister, current and former health ministers and other senior officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It has been triggered by dozens of complaints in recent months, most notably over a shortage of masks and other equipment.
Italy, spared so far from the worst of the second wave, on Wednesday recorded the biggest leap in infections in a single day since the start of the pandemic. It added 7,332 more cases in a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.
Poland recorded a record of nearly 9,000 new cases on Thursday. Masks have been requested outdoors since Saturday and strict limits imposed on meeting size.
Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia have announced record numbers of daily cases. Slovakia imposed new restrictions on Thursday, once again making outdoor masks mandatory and closing fitness centers, public swimming pools, theaters and cinemas.
Portugal was limiting social gatherings to a maximum of five people, as it prepared to make outdoor masks mandatory and impose fines on those who broke the rules.
Even Sweden, which has taken a hotly debated approach to keeping large parts of society open, has raised the prospect of tighter restrictions.
“Too many don’t follow the rules,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “If there are no corrections here, we need to take more precise measures.”
He did not specify what these measures might be.
Associated Press writers across Europe contributed to this report.
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