Europe has been hit hard by the pandemic that started in China and spread across the world. Italy, Spain, Germany and France trail only the U.S. in the number of infections, and the region has suffered more than 60% of worldwide deaths. Italy, the original epicentre of the outbreak on the continent, has begun to plan for emerging from the lockdown as new deaths and cases flatten out. Selected firms could open in mid-April, according to an official familiar with the discussions. Norway will also move to ease restrictions, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press briefing on Tuesday reports Bloomberg.
Italy is beginning to look at easing its lockdown after Denmark and Austria became the first two European countries to loosen restrictions as governments seek to gradually revive economies crippled by the containment measures without risking a second wave of infection. Parts of Italy’s agribusiness and health sectors, and mechanical-equipment companies linked to these industries, could be allowed to restart operations, but protection for workers will be critical for each company involved, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing confidential talks.
Spain’s latest figures underscored the difficulty of containing the contagion. Despite weeks of severe restrictions on public life, Europe’s hardest-hit country reported an increase in its daily coronavirus death toll and a bigger rise in the number of confirmed cases. There were 5,478 new infections in the 24 hours through Tuesday, the highest since Sunday and taking the total to 140,510, according to Health Ministry data. The death toll rose by 743 to 13,798, a larger gain than Monday’s 637. Still, the number of new fatalities was lower than every day last week.
Denmark and Austria were among the first countries in Europe to shut down public life in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz earlier on Monday announced the first steps to restart his country’s economy, with small shops, hardware and gardening stores allowed to reopen after Easter, to be followed by the opening of all retailers from May 1.
Denmark will press ahead with a “cautious reopening” starting with daycare and primary schools on April 15 if the virus numbers remain stable, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Monday evening. The government will also begin talks with business leaders on gradually moving employees back into offices, but some restrictions will remain in place for months to come.
“We’ve managed to avoid the misfortune that has befallen several other countries” because “we acted early,” Frederiksen said.
In Italy, if new cases and fatalities continue to slow, early May could see fewer social restrictions, the official said, with some shops reopening but bars and restaurants remaining closed. Social-distancing rules will remain. On Tuesday, Italy reported its fewest new coronavirus infections since March 13. New cases numbered 3,039 over the last 24 hours, compared with 3,599 a day earlier, civil protection officials said.
Denmark and Austria are getting out in front with tentative steps to ease the restrictions. Still, curbs on daily life will remain. In Denmark, restrictions on crowds larger than 10 people are to be extended as are border closures. In Vienna, Chancellor Kurz, who delivered his remarks from behind a protective screen while wearing a facemask, said that social-distancing rules will still apply at least until the end of April.
“Just because the numbers retreat, the danger isn’t gone,” he said.
“Finally, after a phase of the plateau, there appears to be a decline in the number of new cases,” Giovanni Rezza, head of the infectious diseases department at Rome’s Superior Health Institute, the country’s national health authority, told reporters. “Of course we have to be cautious and await tomorrow or the day after before breathing a sigh of relief.”
Health Minister Roberto Speranza has urged conditions for co-existing with the virus in coming months. These include research on a vaccine and therapy, tests to map who is immune, ensuring that people with light virus symptoms are treated at home rather than in hospitals to avoid contagion, and a new app to help track an infected person’s recent contacts.
The most recent decree by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government set April 13 as the final day of the lockdown, but new measures will probably be considered between Friday and Saturday. Most Italians will have to be patient. “Depending on how the contagion evolves, early May could be the time to start allowing people to venture out,” said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at Milan University. “But we’ll have to stick to social-distancing rules and to stop people from forming groups. And the more we wear masks, the better.”
For all the encouraging signs in Europe, the grim toll of virus victims continues to rise around the world, with U.S. deaths passing 10,000 and Japan preparing to declare a state of emergency in seven prefectures including Tokyo as soon as Tuesday. The World Health Organization added to the note of caution, warning against lifting containment measures completely.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who ended a 12-day period of self-quarantine on Friday, joined the calls for prudence. While Germany has moved forward in efforts to slow the spread of the virus, it’s still too early to issue a time-frame for easing the restrictions on Europe’s biggest economy, she said.
In Germany, some 7,381 people recovered from the illness in 24 hours, compared with 3,252 new cases, the lowest growth in infections in two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday. As a grim reminder of the risks, 226 people died over the past 24 hours, the highest daily toll for the country.
“We have always said that we will decide after Easter when we have clarity on the number of new infections and recoveries,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said Tuesday in an interview with ZDF television. “We need to hold our nerve.”
While French infections continued to level off, Paris will ban outings for individual sports activities between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. starting Wednesday, and Health Minister Olivier Veran said the epidemic hadn’t reached its peak yet in the country. French authorities fear that easing restrictions or setting an end date for confinement measures will prompt people to infringe on the rules or at least be less vigilant, thus threatening to rekindle the epidemic. Total deaths from the virus rose by 1,417 to 10,328, even as new cases declined, France’s public health agency said Tuesday.