BERLIN (AP) — Fears rose Thursday that Europe is running out of chances to control its fall coronavirus outbreak, as infections hit record daily highs in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland. France slapped a 9 pm curfew on many of its biggest cities and Londoners faced new travel restrictions as governments imposed increasingly tough measures.
New infections have surged across Europe over recent weeks as the fall kicks in, prompting authorities to start re-imposing restrictions relaxed over the summer. The Czech Republic, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Britain are among the countries causing particular concern.
The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office urged governments to be “uncompromising” in controlling the virus.
“These measures are meant to keep us all ahead of the curve and to flatten its course,” Dr. Hans Kluge said, 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 if 95 percent of people wear masks and follow other social distancing measures, Europe could avoid about 281,000 deaths by February. But he warned that relaxing measures could lead to a five-fold 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 reported virus deaths so far in the United States, according to figures tallied by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree understate the true impact of the pandemic.
Europe’s financial markets fell sharply Thursday on concerns that the new restrictions on swathes of the region’s economy are already ending the nascent recovery from its sharpest recession in modern history. Major stock indexes were well over two percent lower in Europe.
While Germany, the European Union’s most populous nation, is still in comparatively good shape, alarm bells are ringing there too. On Thursday, the national disease control center reported 6,638 cases over 24 hours — exceeding the previous record of nearly 6,300 set in late March, although testing has expanded greatly since then.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany’s 16 state governors agreed Wednesday night to tighten mask-wearing rules, make bars close 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’s chief of staff, Helge Braun, told ARD television.
“We must stop this exponential rise, the quicker the better,” Merkel said, noting that neighboring European countries are having to take “very drastic measures.”
This week has seen the Netherlands close bars and restaurants, and the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland shut down schools. The Czech Health Ministry confirmed 9,544 new virus cases on Wednesday, over 900 more than the days-old previous record. The government announced Thursday that the military will set up a virus hospital at Prague’s exhibition center.
“We have to build extra capacity as soon as possible,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. “We have no time. The 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 put 18 million residents in nine regions, including Paris, under a 9 pm curfew starting Saturday for at least four weeks, and possibly through December 1.
Aurelien Rousseau, director of the Paris region’s public health agency, said nearly half of its intensive care beds are now occupied by coronavirus patients, with other hospital beds filling rapidly too.
“It’s a kind of spring tide that affects everybody simultaneously,” Rousseau said. “We had a blind spot in our tracking policies. It was the private sphere, festive events.”
The British government on Thursday moved London and a half-dozen other areas into the country’s second-highest virus risk level, meaning that millions will be barred from meeting people outside their households and will be asked to minimize travel.
“I know that these restrictions are difficult for people. I hate the fact that we have to bring them in,” said British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “But it is essential that we do bring them in both to keep people safe and to prevent greater economic damage in the future.″
WHO official Kluge said most of the spread is happening in homes, indoor spaces and communities not complying with protection measures.
“The evolving epidemic in Europe raises great concern,” he said. “But we should not hold back with relatively smaller actions in order to avoid the same very painful damaging actions we saw in the first peak.”
Just as Macron’s government tackles the resurgence of infections, French police on Thursday searched the homes of the former prime minister, the current and former health ministers and other top officials in an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. It was triggered by dozens of complaints over recent months, particularly over shortages of masks and other equipment.
Italy, so far spared the worst of the second wave, on Wednesday recorded its biggest single-day jump in infections since the start of the pandemic. It added another 7,332 cases amid a resurgence that is straining the country’s contact-tracing system.
Poland registered a record of nearly 9,000 new cases on Thursday. Masks have been required outdoors since Saturday and strict limits imposed on the size of gatherings.
Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia announced record daily case numbers. Slovakia was imposing new restrictions Thursday, once again making it mandatory to wear masks outdoors and shutting down fitness centers, public swimming pools, theaters and cinemas.
Portugal was restricting social gatherings to a maximum of five people, while preparing to make masks mandatory outdoors and to impose fines on those disregarding the rules.
Even Sweden, which has chosen a much-debated approach of keeping large parts of society open, raised the prospect of tougher restrictions.
“Too many don’t follow the rules,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said. “If there is no correction here, we must take sharper measures.”
He didn’t specify what those measures might be.