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Around Europe: How countries are battling to prevent a second wave of Covid-19

As the Covid-19 pandemic makes a resurgence our journalists around Europe explain the state of play in their country, the measures being in put in place and the mood of the public as concerns of further restrictions and lockdowns grow.

Around Europe: How countries are battling to prevent a second wave of Covid-19
'The virus is still spreading in Denmark', Michael Barrett, Copenhagen

Denmark has been registering comfortably over 400 new cases of Covid-19 daily for the best part of two weeks, with 559 cases registered on Thursday. This week has also seen the first strong signs of the increase in numbers now transferring to hospitalisations, with 95 Covid-19 patients admitted across the country at the time of writing. The figure stood at 18 three weeks ago on September 4th.

The government has responded to this by requiring all bars and restaurants in the country to close by 10pm and putting night-time assembly bans in place in spots where people might have impromptu gatherings in the absence of the closed bars and nightclubs. Gatherings are currently limited to 50 people.

A request to avoid busy public transport and work from home where possible has been issued. Face masks have been mandatory on all public transportsince late August.

The health minister, Magnus Heunicke, appeared to sound an optimistic note earlier this week when he tweeted that the R-number – the average number of people an infected individual passes the virus to – was on its way downwards. But the virus is still spreading in Denmark.

With Germany set to enforce quarantine on arrivals from Copenhagen and the Danish foreign ministry now advising against non-essential travel to a host of European countries, including the UK and Ireland, Denmark is beginning to feel small and confined again for those with families abroad or other reasons for travel.

In some senses, there’s little to distinguish the situation from that in preceding weeks.

A second strict lockdown does not yet appear on the cards, face masks are not required in shops and schools and universities are open. But university welcoming events and extracurricular school activities are unlikely to take place as experts continue to caution against unnecessary social contact.

As the dark nights draw in, continued distancing and quiet streets make early autumn feel a little greyer than usual.

'Reports from hospitals in France have convinced many that new measures are necessary', Emma Pearson, Paris
After a long hot summer with only some passing thoughts of Covid-19, France got serious again this week.
Cases of the virus have been increasing at an alarming rate over the last month – 16,000 new cases a day on Thursday – and over the past couple of weeks hospitals have again begun to fill up.
Before we get too gloomy, things are nothing like as bad as they were in March and April – ICU patient numbers are measured in hundreds, not thousands, and daily death tolls are in dozens not hundreds.
But those watching trends in the data are alarmed and the French government has now taken action and begun once again to impose limitations on daily life.
Again, we are not looking at anything as harsh as the strict nationwide lockdown in the spring, but  summer is over in more ways than one.
Desperate to avoid another nationwide lockdown of the type that did such damage to its economy, the French government has instead set up a localised strategy.

The framework was unveiled in a live evening TV briefing (yes, those are back too) which gives each part of France an alert level, and each alert level has its own restrictions.
At the lower end of the scale is a limit of 30 people at weddings, but for those living in the worst affected areas bars and restaurants will close completely, along with a large number of other public spaces including gyms, community halls and sports facilities.
Grim acceptance would perhaps best sum up the mood – no-one wants these measures and no-one, this time, is under any illusion that this will be a short-term thing. But reports from the hospitals have convinced many that these are necessary and some are even pushing the government for stricter controls.
These new measures combined with the compulsory mask-wearing in offices, shops, trains and (in many areas) the streets means we are in no danger of forgetting the pandemic as we were briefly able to do when we sprawled on France's soft sandy beaches this summer.  
'How much worse will it have to get in Spain before we are locked down again?' Fiona Govan, Madrid

Walking around the streets of the centre of Madrid, it’s hard to fathom that the capital is once again at the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, not just in Spain this time but leading the way in Europe for the daily number of new cases. 

Terraces are bustling as friends meet up to enjoy drinks and tapas on the last of the warm evenings before autumn sets in, students recently reunited in colleges and universities squeeze together tightly on benches in the plazas just as they have always done. Young children crowd around swings and climbing frames in playgrounds, reaching out to their friends with fingers sticky from after-school merienda.

Masks are as likely to be seen slipped under the nose, supporting the chin or loosely dangling from a finger beneath a lit cigarette as worn in the correct Covid-19 preventative position.

There is a sense that people are making the most of meeting friends and enjoying life outside the home in case their section of the city is the next to be declared a confinement zone. 

Blame for being in the grip of a second wave is deftly placed on the politicians from either the left (central government) or right (regional government) depending on your own political standpoint.

Broadly, the plea by Spain’s Minister of Health earlier this week for all Madrileños – not just those in the 37 trouble spots – to stay home and only go out and meet people if strictly necessary, has fallen on deaf ears. 

But the daily statistics tell a different story. Madrid currently has an average incidence rate of over 750 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days reaching above a worrying 1,200 in the poorest most populated zones of the city. 

And the number of Covid-19 deaths each day are creeping up although still far below the numbers reached at the peak of the first wave. At least 18 of the capital’s public hospitals are already at 90 percent occupancy with doctors begging for reinforcements while warning that worse is yet to come. 

But the question no one dares ask is how much worse will it have to get before we get locked down again?


Map: European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. For more data on the latest Covid-19 situation in Europe click HERE

'A message was sent out that said 'Oslo needs your help',' Agnes Erickson, Oslo

With the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Norway, the government has begun to introduce and tighten current regulations set in place in order to keep the public safe. Norway’s capital city Oslo, has been hit hard with the news that the number of people infected is the highest it has been since June.

There has been a spike of 548 positive cases within the last 14 days according to VG. On Tuesday, September 22nd the government mandated private gatherings be limited to a ten person maximum, halving the  number from 20. 

Before the announcement was made public, Oslo Commune sent out a text message to the city’s  inhabitants saying, “Oslo needs your help. Keep a 1 meter distance. Use  a facemask when needed. Sick? Stay home. Avoid busses, trams and the subway if possible. Do this for Oslo.”

READ MORE: Which European countries are on Norway's quarantine list?

When walking around the capital’s city streets, one’s first impression wouldn’t be of a city dealing with a pandemic. Public transportation is full and shops are open with normal business hours. A more inspective glance would show the signs for keeping a distance between others  are everywhere and the bottles of sanitizer are conveniently placed just inside store fronts. 

The latest city to take on stricter guidelines is Arendal. VG, reported on Thursday, September 24th, residences of Arendal received word that private gatherings have a 10 person maximum. There is a 50 person max for public arrangements and businesses open to the public must arrange a guestlist. The newest restrictions must be followed over the course of the next 10 days. 

The Norwegian Health Department believes the most important thing citizens can do is keep a 1 meters distance from each other. To date, NRK reports 778 new positive cases this week, 24 corona positive patients currently admitted in hospitals, and a total of 270 deaths.

Generally speaking, it appears locals are still trusting and following the government's regulations all the while moving on with their daily lives. The pandemic continues to be  a popular topic among citizens, and they are cautiously optimistic the current rules set in place will be enough to control the spread of the virus. 

'The Swiss government has been careful not to stoke fears and create panic,' Helena Bachmann, Geneva

In June, the number of infections in Switzerland reached their lowest number: daily cases did not exceed low two-digits, in contrast to over 1,000 contaminations each day at the height of the pandemic this spring.
This spawned a post-lockdown sense of euphoria — people started to go out, mingle and party, as though they were living in 2019 again.
Not surprisingly, the number of cases started to creep up again, reaching its highest levels since April and sparking concerns that the disease was re-emerging with a vengeance.
This time, however, there is a prevailing sense of calm, or perhaps just resignation and grudging acceptance that coronavirus is here to stay and we must live with it as well as we can.
Once the state emergency was over, it was up to each of the 26 cantons to manage the crisis on their own turf.

And they have: officials in regions with most cases — Vaud, Geneva, and Zurich— implemented measures such as compulsory masks in stores or all indoor public spaces, the closure of nightclubs, and limiting the number of people who can gather together in public and privately.
The government’s tactic has been not to stoke fears and create panic. They’ve approached the situation dispassionately and rationally, bringing the much-needed perspective to events that could otherwise be interpreted as dramatic.
Their main message is: ‘We are doing fine’.
What about the rising number of cases? “It’s because we’re doing many more tests. And most infections are only in a few regions; the rest of the country is relatively unaffected,” they say.
Second wave? “We know so much more about this disease now, and we’ll be able to handle it”.
It may be just a balm for our collective souls, but it seems to be soothing nevertheless: we have gotten accustomed to this new ‘normal’.
Nevertheless, many here dare to hope that once the vaccine becomes available next year, the old ‘normal’ will be back.
'Sweden's PM has had to remind everyone we are still in the middle of a pandemic', Emma Löfgren, Stockholm

Sweden had long been spared the large second wave of the coronavirus that many other countries in Europe have been seeing, but cases are again on the rise after a quiet summer.

They’re still at a relatively low level compared to the peak of the outbreak in spring, but it’s enough to be cause for concern, and comes amid a general sense that people are not following social distancing recommendations as much as they perhaps used to. It’s rising in working-age groups, which seems to suggest that it’s linked to more people returning to the workplace.

And it was enough to prompt Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to take on the role of a school teacher this week and gently remind everyone that we’re still going through a pandemic. Don’t hug your friends, work from home if you can and don’t throw house parties. Your grades are not what he had expected, and he’s only disappointed because he knows you can do better.

But what’s new? Not much.

Sweden is preparing to be ready to crack down on potential cluster outbreaks with localised restrictions or guidelines, but a full-scale lockdown is unlikely to be on the cards even as cases rise. Plans to raise the spectator limit from 50 to 500 at public events look like they may not go ahead at this stage, but it all depends on how the situation develops. A national ban on visits to care homes is expected to be lifted next month, with health authorities reasoning that yes, the pandemic is a threat to public health, but so is loneliness and isolation.

The mood during the summer was relatively upbeat all things considered – Sweden comes alive in summer, and it was possible to meet friends in a reasonably coronavirus-safe way outdoors. But it’s already getting colder and darker, and we now have to make it through a long winter. And many international residents may be looking at spending Christmas without their families.

'Italy is grateful to be behind the curve', Jessica Phelan, Rome

Italy has found itself going from ahead to behind.

We were the first country in Europe to get the first wave of coronavirus, and it was a tsunami. The state of emergency declared then is still in place and will be for at least another three weeks.

Schools closed here before anywhere else, and they were the slowest to reopen: in some parts of Italy, classes only resumed this week.

We were the first to introduce lockdown measures, and some of those restrictions still govern fundamental parts of our lives – like where and how we can travel, and whether we have to cover our faces – while we see neighbouring countries relax their rules.

We’re getting back some of the things we had to give up: as of last week football fans are finally able to watch Serie A from the stands again, albeit in limited numbers. 

But progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. Over the warm months we resumed holidaying and dancing, only to see swab tests made mandatory for people returning from certain countries and discos ordered to re-close as new cases spiked and reminded us that it wasn’t a normal summer after all.

In recent days parts of Italy have ordered stricter rules on face masks than ever before, making masks mandatory anywhere in public 24 hours a day, even outdoors.

The idea is to tighten rules swiftly and locally at the first sign of rising infections – that way, it’s hoped, we’ll avoid the need for another general lockdown.

Because now we’re behind in the most important sense: Italy’s new cases are far lower than some of our neighbours’. We keep asking ourselves why: is it our mask-wearing? Our public health service? Or simply the fact we locked down first and longest?

Whatever it is, with schools cautiously back in session and life the closest to normal it’s been in at least six months, we in Italy are grateful to be behind for a change – and hoping we stay there.

'Germany is trying to strike a balance', Rachel Stern, Berlin

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March, there was a visible worry in Berlin. The U-Bahn, normally packed with early evening commuters, breezed by mostly empty. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer were sold out legends, heard of but not seen on empty supermarket shelves. 

Now, aside from the Alltagsmasken (literally ‘everyday masks’ which must be worn in transport or stores or you, ahem, face a fine) life seems relatively “normal”. In light of not being able to travel to California this year, I've journeyed through eight German states in the past couple weeks and observed people eating in pubs, cueing for the cinema, and trying to live life aside from the pandemic. I can't blame them as I am too.

But despite Germany's relative success in the pandemic – it’s had 248,500 reported recoveries out of a total of 281,407 cases – we shouldn't be ready to relax yet, warned Christian Drosten, a top virologist at Berlin's Charite Hospital, on Wednesday. 

For three times in the past months, the daily coronavirus case count has topped 2,000 – numbers not seen since April. In light of locally growing infections, individual states have made moves to stem the spread of the virus – be it Munich mandating masks in some parts of its old town, or the whole state of North Rhine-Westphalia putting a limit on participants in private events. 

As temperatures dip, Germany is debating whether and how it should keep its famous Christmas markets (Cologne already cancelled as a precaution), if there can still be outdoor seating at restaurants with heaters, and how to make coronavirus testing even more widespread and accessible. 

No one knows what the coming colder months hold, but this time Germany is trying to strike a balance between the status quo and safety.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.