The European Union’s fight against Covid-19 is stuck in midwinter, even as spring and vaccinations spur hope of improvement in the U.S. and U.K.
Contagion is rising again in much of the EU, despite months of restrictions on daily life, as more-virulent virus strains outpace vaccinations. A mood of gloom and frustration is settling on the continent, and governments are caught between their promises of progress and the bleak epidemiological reality.
Virus infections and deaths have been falling rapidly in the U.S. and U.K. since January as inoculations take off among the elderly and other vulnerable groups. In the EU, however, new Covid-19 cases have been rising again since mid-February. U.S. infections and deaths, which were higher on a per-capita basis for most of 2020, have fallen below the bloc’s.
In much of the continent, the spread of the more-aggressive variant first detected in the U.K. is behind the worsening of the pandemic, undoing strenuous efforts to rein in the virus since the fall with an array of restrictions that have brought the bloc’s economic recovery to a standstill.
Governments and public-health experts say only a combination of accelerated vaccinations and gradual reopening can defeat Covid-19’s latest rebound. But the EU’s efforts continue to suffer from its slowness in procuring and approving vaccines, production delays at vaccine makers, and bureaucratic holdups in injecting available doses.
So far, there is nothing like the acute hospital crisis that overwhelmed healthcare systems in parts of Italy and Spain a year ago. Instead, the bloc’s public-health crisis has become chronic, with authorities struggling constantly to tamp down the flames.
Despite similar trends in the bloc’s larger countries, political pressures are leading to different responses.
Italy, the first Western country hit by the pandemic, entered the world’s first nationwide lockdown on March 10 last year. Now some Italians are starting to joke that they will be the last nation to exit a lockdown.
New Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s first big decision, confirmed on Friday, was to lock down many regions of Italy starting Monday, and the whole country over Easter.
The decision means bars, restaurants and nonessential shops will close in many regions, while elsewhere they face stricter limits on hours and services offered. People’s movement will be more tightly restricted. Millions of school students will go back to remote learning.
Italy’s escalation comes after weeks of lighter measures failed to stop the rapid rise of the U.K. variant.
“I thank the citizens once again for their discipline, their infinite patience,” Mr. Draghi said earlier this week. His new administration, brought in mainly for its economic expertise, is instead scrambling for ways to increase vaccine production.
Mr. Draghi doesn’t have to worry about reelection: He is a technocratic prime minister leading an emergency government with the support of nearly all parties in Parliament for probably only one year.
Elsewhere in the region, electoral pressures are holding leaders back from tightening restrictions despite rising infections and hospitalizations.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is up for reelection next year, has rebuffed calls from public-health experts to impose a third lockdown on the country. Instead he has relied on a nationwide evening curfew and other restrictions while authorities try to accelerate vaccinations.
Health Minister Olivier Veran told reporters Thursday that variants now account for more than 70% of new infections in France. Pressure is rising again on intensive-care units in the Paris region, where he said a new patient is admitted every 12 minutes. Mr. Veran said he expected authorities to begin transferring scores of patients out of the Paris area to hospitals in regions that have fewer cases. Nationwide, ICUs are nearly 80% full.
“It’s a situation that I would qualify as tense and worrying,” Mr. Veran said.
In Germany, which is gearing up for national elections in September, there is little political will to reimpose tougher restrictions, even though infections have begun increasing again since early February. Scientists say the U.K. variant is behind the rise there, too.
The setback took Germany’s government by surprise: For weeks, it looked like the pandemic was receding, and federal and state authorities promised a relaxation of lockdown measures. Fearing a public backlash, German authorities are easing some measures anyway.
Hairdressers reopened on March 1. Some state governments have allowed some stores—from book shops to garden centers—to reopen. Younger children have also started returning to classrooms.
Despite frustrations over the restrictions, many are questioning the government’s strategy. Only 30% of Germans trust in the competence of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party, while confidence in her center-left coalition partner is in the single digits, according to a survey released this week by opinion-polling institute Forsa.
The German press, initially supportive of Ms. Merkel’s handling of the pandemic, has also turned against the government, with publications from the mass-market conservative Bild tabloid to the left-leaning Spiegel attacking authorities’ competence on a daily basis.
Now scientists fear the combination of virus variants, snail-paced vaccinations and reopenings could send infection numbers soaring. “We’re seeing clear signs that the third wave has now begun in Germany,” Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, told journalists Thursday. “I am very concerned.”