Fourth wave of Covid triggers restriction demands across Europe

WHO warns Europe in danger of losing another 500,000 lives to virus by February

European leaders from Copenhagen to Prague are under growing pressure to reintroduce tighter Covid-19 measures – across the board or targeting the unvaccinated – amid a surge in new infections across the continent.

The World Health Organisation has warned that Europe could see another 500,000 Covid-19 deaths by February unless health authorities “reconsider easing or lifting measures at this moment”.

Austria led the way on Monday with new laws excluding unvaccinated people from restaurants, hairdressers, cinemas and theatres as well as events with more than 25 people.

The new rules apply to all residents over 12, with a four-week transition period permitting access for those with a negative test and proof of one jab. Austria’s infection rate is up 60 per cent in a week.

New fines for breaches of the new guidelines include €3,600 for a restaurant, hairdresser or other premises that admits an unvaccinated patron, and €500 for the customer.

In addition Austria’s Covid app, used to gain access to closed spaces, will now only consider someone fully vaccinated for nine months after their second Covid jab, to encourage people to get a booster shot.

The changes had an immediate effect on Monday with queues before vaccination centres across the Alpine republic. Interior minister Karl Nehammer confirmed the aim of the new measures – policed by 800 dedicated officers on the beat – was to “increase the pressure” to get vaccinated.

Intensive care

“Whoever visits a bar or restaurant has to expect to be checked, sadly this has become necessary,” he said.

Announcing the measures, Austrian chancellor Alexander Schallenberg warned of an “extraordinary dynamism” in infections, with “occupancy rates in the intensive care beds increasing significantly faster than expected”.

The latest incidence rate data – the number of cases per 100,000 of population in the past seven days – reveal the scale of the fourth-wave Covid-19 spike across Europe.

Of the top 10 countries with the worst outbreaks at the moment, six are in Europe with many registering a doubling or tripling of incidence rates in the last two weeks.

Austria has a seven-day incidence rate of almost 600, according to the database company Statista, while Slovakia is leading the EU with 961, followed by Estonia and Croatia with 838 and 760 respectively.

The Czech Republic, where just 59 per cent of the population is vaccinated, is another European Covid hotspot, with a seven-day incidence rate of 500 and a 59 per cent spike in Covid cases.

“The hospitals are being flooded with Covid-19 patients more than even I thought possible a month ago,” said Dr Milan Kubeck, head of the Czech doctors’ association. Ireland has a seven-day incidence of 482.

Further north in Denmark, which abolished almost all restrictions on September 1st, the incidence rate has reached 254 and continues to rise.

Public health director Søren Brostrøm has demanded the reintroduction of the local Covid-19 vaccination pass – showing vaccinations or recent test results – for access to indoor dining and cultural events.

Pandemic plans

Across the border, Germany’s seven-day incidence rate on Monday crossed the 200 mark for the first time since the pandemic began. Berlin’s would-be coalition partners have interrupted talks to focus on new pandemic plans, set to go before the Bundestag on Thursday.

The proposals are expected to avoid new lockdowns and will fall short of the Austrian model. Leaked proposals include regular test requirements for care home workers, more sick days for parents and the return of free rapid tests for all, abolished last month.

Given ongoing disagreement between Germany’s 16 federal states, which have frontline responsibility for health, some capitals are pushing ahead on their own. The eastern state of Saxony, where incidence rates are twice the national average at nearly 500, has adopted the Austrian approach.

Some 54 per cent of Saxons polled by local broadcaster MDR support excluding the non-vaccinated from restaurants, cafes and cinemas. Some 62 per cent viewed it as a “mandatory vaccination by the back door”.

Through her spokesman, acting chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her “serious concern” at the situation and urged “people, business and the various levels of state to do what is needed to get a handle on the pandemic”.

West of the Rhine, France’s infection rates of 6,600 per day are roughly one third that of Germany’s. But in a live television address on Tuesday evening, French president Emmanuel Macron is expected to outline new pandemic measures including booster shots. An Elysée spokesman said Mr Macron was “very worried about the health situation in Europe”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin