Pandemic restrictions are being lifted with alacrity across Europe despite many countries experiencing a record surge in coronavirus cases and concerns about the failure to vaccinate many people considered vulnerable to the disease.
In Germany most pandemic controls will be lifted on Sunday after a heated parliamentary debate on Friday which led to both houses of parliament voting in favour.
That was despite cases in Germany reaching a new daily record of almost 300,000 on Friday – a seven-day incidence rate of 1,706 cases per 100,000 residents – and a majority of the population expressing concern that the relaxations were coming too soon. Germany has been recording daily deaths of more than 200 for several weeks.
Cases are also climbing in Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and France.
In Austria authorities said they had little choice other than to reintroduce a face mask mandate for indoor spaces in the light of a hefty rise in cases to 3,600 per 100,000 inhabitants. The minister for health, Johannes Rauch, announced on Friday that from the middle of this week medical FFP2 masks will have to be worn again.
Austria is at the same time considering reducing quarantine times due to an acute lack of nurses and other hospital staff as infections rise, leading to operations having to be postponed and a record number of resignations among medical staff.
In France, most restrictions were lifted last Monday, including the obligation to wear a mask indoors, except on public transport, and to show a “pass vaccinal” proving vaccine or recovery status. The number of new cases has risen by a quarter since last week, according to health authorities, and was at its highest along the Grand Est border region with Germany.
French authorities said the situation in clinics remained stable and that both the number of patients in intensive care and the number of coronavirus fatalities were going down. During a four-hour presentation of his election programme on Thursday, president Emmanuel Macron made scant reference to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, warned against believing the virus had been conquered, as the World Health Organisation said on Friday it was "far from over".
"Lately we are all dealing with the war in Ukraine and high prices," Mr Mitsotakis said in an Instagram post, having himself tested positive on Monday, "but the coronavirus is still very much with us."
A hotchpotch of rules are in place across the continent, with countries such as Italy and Spain, which were worst hit in the earliest stages of the pandemic in 2020, appearing to take the most cautious approach to loosening regulations.
In Spain, face masks are still required in schools, restaurants, on public transport and in other indoor spaces, and 211,241 new Covid cases have been registered over the past two weeks. The numbers have been on the rise since last week, at about 446 cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period. But the proportion of intensive care beds occupied by Covid patients has fallen by just under 3 per cent to 6.6 per cent compared with a fortnight ago.
Spain has one of the highest vaccination levels of any European country, with 92.3 per cent over the age of 12 having had two jabs, while 51.3 per cent have had three.
The Spanish government has signalled its intention to end the mandatory use of masks in interior spaces soon, but said it was not yet ready to set a date.
"It's true that everything suggests we're getting closer and closer to that, but for us, how we do it is as important as when we do it," the minister for health, Carolina Darias, said last week. Spain has lost at least 101,000 people to the virus.
Italy announced plans last Thursday to gradually phase out its protection measures despite a rise in cases since the start of March, two years after the virus spread in the country to devastating effect, claiming more than 157,000 lives. The easing of rules means that the requirement to show a health certificate to enter most public places, from theatres to restaurants, would be dropped.
Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, said the government reserved the right to reintroduce restrictions if necessary, but said the country was now well placed to cope with the virus as almost 84 per cent of Italians had received a jab.
Meanwhile, across Scandinavia, where almost all restrictions have been dropped, the number of registered infections has been falling considerably over weeks, following record rates seen in February. Some are sceptical, suggesting the fall might be linked to a lack of testing. But experts say Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland all boast high vaccine rates, giving them greater protection.
In Germany, a vaccine mandate is still being debated due to vaccine rates that are considered too low, particularly among older people, and well below the government's own goal, at just under 76 per cent. Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, used a regional election campaign event in Saarland on Friday to appeal to more Germans to get a jab.
“We need to stick up for each other,” he said, fighting to be heard amid shouts from protesters from the Covid-sceptic Querdenker movement. “Where’s the solidarity, when it’s of no concern to you whether you are infecting other people or not? Freedom only functions when it means freedom for everyone,” he said.
The German minister for health, Karl Lauterbach, accused those who refuse vaccination of "holding the rest of the country hostage". – Guardian