Europe treads carefully as it seeks to ease coronavirus lockdown

Fierce debate as governments balance controlling the virus and restoring everyday life

Countries across Europe are tentatively easing coronavirus restrictions in a bid to try to allow as much normal life as possible while keeping the disease in check.

Across the continent, governments are wrestling with how to restore everyday freedoms while preventing a swift rise in infections from the deadly virus, as the world faces an economic downturn forecast to be the steepest in a century.

Normality will not look like it did before the pandemic hit as most plans rely on citizens wearing face masks and continuing to keep their distance in shops and on public transport. Many countries are pinning their hopes on technologies like tracing apps and mass testing to track down breakouts of the virus as soon as they occur.

In Italy, the first country in Europe to go into lockdown, some businesses have been allowed to reopen this week, on the condition they are kept sanitised and employees keep a safe distance from each other.


From May 4th, parks will be opened and people will be allowed to visit relatives, as long as they wear face masks and keep gatherings small. Shops, museums and libraries will be allowed to open later this month if they keep customers apart, while bars, restaurants and hairdressers can open from June.

"If we do not abide by the precautions, the curve will rise and could get out of control, the number of our dead will increase and our economy will suffer irreversible damage," prime minister Giuseppe Conte said as he announced the new rules. "If you love Italy, keep your distance."

The Spanish government has said it will slowly phase out the lockdown by reopening the economy sector by sector, but warned that ending restrictions relied on continued social distancing and safety measures in workplaces.

"We cannot think of opening anything if there is not sufficient protection for workers, taking into account the different levels of associated risk," said Teresa Ribera, one of Spain's deputy prime ministers.

In France, prime minister Edouard Philippe is due to present the government's plan to unwind the lockdown to parliament on Tuesday. Lawmakers will debate and vote on the measures, and regional authorities will help tailor the plan to fit different parts of France.

The strategy will include measures involving face masks, testing, and the use of isolation. Up for discussion are schools, workplaces, shops, transport, and gatherings.

Conspiracy theorists

Throughout Europe, there is intense debate about how to handle the crisis, with some citizens highly cautious about reopening public life while others are impatient for restrictions to end.

In Germany, which has been lauded for keeping its death rate low, a vocal minority has demanded an end to the lockdown. Dozens of protesters were arrested when hundreds of people including conspiracy theorists protested against the measures in Berlin on Saturday.

Belgium, Greece and Malta have already announced an easing of restrictions, while Norway has sent some young children back to school and the Czech Republic has allowed small shops to reopen.

In the Netherlands, which never closed shops, some children will go back to school in May. But the government warned restrictions would be constantly reviewed, and that the public should be ready for them to be loosened or tightened every three weeks to manage the disease.

The European Commission has urged national governments to co-ordinate with each other as they begin to ease restrictions, to allow for free movement of people to be restored between EU member states as soon as possible.

In guidance published this month, the commission advised that ending lockdowns relied on countries having the testing and tracing capacity to identify and isolate outbreaks before they spread widely, and on having sufficient capacity in their health systems to manage a resurgence.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times