Europe contemplates bleak winter as Covid-19 cases soar
Intensive care facilities run out in Netherlands as Belgium faces similar scenario
Medical staff take a patient infected with Covid-19 for an evacuation by helicopter from the Netherlands to Germany. Photograph: Olaf Kraak/ANP/AFP via Getty
European countries are bracing for a grim winter as surging coronavirus infections strain hospital capacity and force leaders to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.
“Right now we are well behind this virus in Europe, so getting ahead of it is going to take some serious acceleration in measures,” the World Health Organisation’s top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, warned in a briefing to press.
The European Union announced that physical high-level meetings of political leaders and diplomats would be reduced to “the absolute minimum necessary”, and that virtual meetings would be held on pressing matters only, as leaders wrestled with a worsening pandemic across the continent.
“Only essential meetings necessary for the functioning of the EU or to co-ordinate the Covid-19 crisis response will continue to take place in person,” said a spokesman for the German presidency of the EU.
It came as Brussels introduced a 10pm curfew, obliging citizens to be at home or face hefty fines, and shut sport, cultural and leisure venues while ordering all shops to close by 8pm.
Dutch hospitals began airlifting struggling Covid-19 patients to Germany as they ran out of intensive care beds, while Belgian authorities warned their hospitals could also run out of intensive care capacity within a fortnight.
The Dutch government, which never shut shops or forced citizens to stay at home during the first wave of the pandemic, is warning that such measures or a curfew may be unavoidable if cases continue to rise.
Germany, which has so far fared relatively better than its neighbours, is to consider tightening restrictions as chancellor Angela Merkel warned the country risked losing control in its fight against the disease.
The Bavarian city of Nuremberg announced it was calling off its famous Christmas market, as the district of Rottal-Inn in the region imposed a strict lockdown to force citizens to stay at home apart for all but essential reasons, the second area to do so following the same decision by Berchtesgaden last week.
“We are facing very, very difficult months ahead,” Dr Merkel told a meeting of leaders from her Christian Democratic Union, according to local media, ahead of a meeting with the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states to decide on whether additional restrictive measures should be imposed to curb infections.
In France a 9pm curfew was extended to two-thirds of the population as the country reported a record 50,000 new infections in a day over the weekend, while UK health secretary Matt Hancock said the government could “rule nothing out” when it came to new restrictions.
Spain introduced a nationwide 11pm curfew on Sunday night, and the government declared a new state of emergency that it warned would be likely to last for six months.
Italy has imposed local curfews in several regions, while shutting gyms and cinemas and ordering bars and restaurants to close by 6pm after seeing a sudden spike in cases in October. On Monday its foreign ministry warned citizens not to leave the country, cautioning that sudden travel restrictions could “risk complicating any return to Italy”.