Governments across Europe examining how to exit lockdown

EU to announce guidelines, including recommendations for states sharing borders

A customer  in a  book store  after the Austrian government loosened its lockdown restrictions. Photograph: Reuters

A customer in a book store after the Austrian government loosened its lockdown restrictions. Photograph: Reuters

 

Governments across Europe are examining how to ease out of lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus while minimising the risks of new outbreaks.

Austria, France and Denmark have announced plans to gradually reopen some schools, shops and businesses, and EU health ministers are to meet in video conference on Wednesday to discuss how to co-ordinate their next steps.

The European Commission is expected to announce guidelines on how to manage the exits from lockdown on Wednesday, with a “road map” of recommendations so that member states that share open borders can have consistent policies.

The guidelines are expected to lay out criteria for how member states should evaluate when reopening is appropriate, and emphasise the importance of co-ordination with neighbouring countries. However, they steer clear of recommending courses of action.

The launch of the document was delayed amid concerns from states that talk of ending lockdowns was premature.

“It is up to member states. It is their prerogative to determine when they want to take restrictive measures and when they want to move out of restrictive measures,” a commission spokesman said.

“What we have been working on over the past weeks is a road map with recommendations to ensure that when they start to move out of these restrictive measures they do so in a manner that is effective, including and in particular taking into account obviously the situation in other EU countries.”

“In particular, cross-border regions need to take into account for obvious reasons the situation just across the border if they want their measures to be effective,” the spokesman added.

Across Europe some political factions and businesses have been calling for lockdowns to be eased to limit the economic damage of the pandemic, and there is concern about how long citizens will endure the restrictions, especially as the weather gets warmer.

Any steps towards reopening are likely to be accompanied by a range of hygiene measures, including distancing, increased cleaning and in some countries a requirement to wear face masks.

Education ministers from across the EU met over video conference on Tuesday, and discussed how states were managing remote education and plans to reopen schools.

Schools in Portugal and Malta are shut until at least after the summer, and in some countries until further notice. Half of EU member states are considering reopening some schools by the end of May.

Croatia’s science and education minister Blazenka Divjak said: “When schools are reopening in some countries, decisions are not to open all schools but to have some schedule how to do it.

“The issue is also how to guide schools and universities how to have precautionary mechanisms, and support them in building a safe environment.”

FRANCE

President Emmanuel Macron stressed that France’s reopening on May 11th is conditional on further progress against the epidemic, and that it would be gradual.

The reopening of “creches, schools, colleges and lycées” is Macron’s first priority. Universities will not reopen “before summer”.

Many teachers had believed that school would not resume until next September. Teachers’ unions have accused the government of sacrificing them to relaunch economic activity.

French president Emmanuel Macron: he stressed that France’s reopening on May 11th was conditional on further progress against the epidemic. Photograph: EPA
French president Emmanuel Macron: he stressed that France’s reopening on May 11th was conditional on further progress against the epidemic. Photograph: EPA
A worker wearing a face mask on a construction site in Barcelona, Spain. Photograph: Bloomberg
A worker wearing a face mask on a construction site in Barcelona, Spain. Photograph: Bloomberg

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer stressed that “everybody will not go back at the same time”, and said priority would be given to students in disadvantaged areas.

Factories that make essential items such as surgical masks and ventilators have dramatically increased production under lockdown, but most industry and the construction sector are almost at a standstill. Employers are required to respect rules on social distancing and sanitation.

The government will draw up more detailed plans for reopening the economy over the next two weeks. The business management group Medef says working hours should be increased and paid holidays reduced to help the recovery.

Shops selling food and drink, food delivery services, pharmacies and newspaper stands are the only retail businesses that have been allowed to remain open during the lockdown.

“On May 11th we will allow most people to return to work, restart our industry, our shops and services,” Macron said.

Trade unions and management are together drawing up lists of those who may reopen. Public gathering places, including restaurants, cafes, hotels, cinemas, theatres and museums, “will remain shut at this stage”, Macron said.

Lara Marlowe

AUSTRIA

Queues formed outside Austrian garden centres and hardware stores on Tuesday as the country, one of the first to restrict public life, became one of Europe’s first to ease lockdown measures.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the liberalisation was possible because people had restricted their movements in recent months and adhered to the week-old obligation to wear face masks in shops and – from Tuesday – on public transport and in taxis.

“This is a first step in the direction of opening that’s become possible,” said Kurz in Vienna. “We’re following our schedule, but if the numbers go into the wrong direction again we’ll use the emergency brake.”

All stores with less than 400sq m floor space are open as of Tuesday, alongside hardware stores and garden centres. Face masks are still mandatory, as are access restrictions to ensure stores don’t become overcrowded and breach social distancing rules.

If infection growth remains below 3 per cent per day in a week’s time, Austrian authorities say other stores and shopping centres will reopen on May 2nd and hotels and restaurants mid-May. Public events are banned until the end of June at the earliest.

Construction has continued after a brief interruption, while factories never closed. Companies are struggling to survive, and state wage support costs for more than 600,000 jobs are now up to €5 billion.

Schools remain closed and are unlikely to reopen before mid-May, though state “Matura” school-leaving exams will go ahead.

Derek Scally

SPAIN

Spain has been in a tightly controlled lockdown for a month, and the government has said it is likely to be extended at last until mid-May. However, this week non-essential workers have been allowed to return to their workplaces, a measure that affects sectors such as the building industry, manufacturing and other heavy industry.

Although those sectors have broadly welcomed the lifting of the restriction, there has been some frustration at a perceived lack of clarity regarding the new circumstances. Construction companies, for example, have been told not to work or use communal areas in buildings close to residents, causing some confusion.

The return to work of these Spaniards has caused an increase in the use of public transport, with the Madrid region seeing an 11 per cent rise in demand compared to last week. Police and security guards have been handing out face masks to commuters at bus and train stations.

With schools still closed, the government has not yet announced how this academic year will end or be evaluated, and education minister Isabel Celaá is due to discuss the issue with regional governments this week.

A group of education experts has started a campaign to persuade the government to open schools in the summer in order to help pupils study subjects in which they have fallen behind or take part in extra-curricular activities.

The government’s head of health emergencies, Fernando Simón, has said he does not favour lifting restriction of movement for children yet, as some politicians have been demanding.

Guy Hedgecoe

ITALY

Italy was the first EU country to go into lockdown, imposing national movement restrictions on March 9th. With the economy reeling, some politicians and businesses are calling for a return to normality, and the government has set up a task force to examine how to gradually allow daily activities to resume.

Last week the government announced that the lockdown would be extended to May 3rd, but that a handful of businesses would be allowed to reopen. Bookshops, stationary shops and shops that sell children’s clothes are allowed to open from Tuesday, as long as they maintain strict hygiene rules and stagger customer entries. Some hard-hit regions in the north are to keep them closed.

Schools are not expected to open until September, after the summer holidays. Under consideration for the next phase of reopening are some pillars of Italian industry, including car-making, metallurgy and fashion. Whenever it happens, businesses are likely to be required to implement hygiene precautions.

Government ministers have suggested that flexible hours and working from home should be considered to prevent overcrowding of public transport.

There is division among sport authorities about when football matches can be played again, and as the weather heats up there is discussion on how to manage the annual migration of Italians out of cities to the coasts during the summer.

Naomi O’Leary

GERMANY

Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss Germany’s exit from lockdown measures on Wednesday with regional leaders. Amid growing disagreement on the approach and timetable, and with competences divided between federal and state level, the end of emergency measures is likely to be as confused and piecemeal as their beginning.

Germany’s centre for disease control announced a slowing of the pandemic on Monday – 2,000 new cases in a day, down from twice that a week ago – but as yet no sign of a clear drop. More than 68,000 people have recovered from the virus, more than half of the 125,000 registered cases, and hospitals have considerable intensive bed capacity.

“The measures taken are having an effect,” said Prof Lothar Wieler of the Robert Koch Institute. “The discipline we have held in the last weeks should hold a bit longer.”

All schools and colleges remain closed, along with childcare, for the foreseeable future. An expert report for the government on Monday urged a “realistic” timetable to get schools open again “as soon as possible”, starting with the primary sector. Education is a competence of federal states, not Berlin, so staggered, regional solutions are likely.

On Tuesday, the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to one in five Germans, said it was aiming to reopen kindergartens and primary schools by April 20th.

A survey for the Bild tabloid found 43 per cent of parents favoured cancelling school holidays to allow children make up lost lesson time.

There is no indication as to when non-essential retail and services can reopen. Again this is a competence of federal states, in agreement with individual municipalities, so a heterogeneous pattern is likely. While construction and production has continued where site managers can guarantee social distancing, most factories are shuttered.

Graffiti of a punk with a face mask and the words “corona must die so that we can live” in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: EPA
Graffiti of a punk with a face mask and the words “corona must die so that we can live” in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: EPA
School tables spaced apart at a school in Gladsaxe, Denmark. Photograph: EPA
School tables spaced apart at a school in Gladsaxe, Denmark. Photograph: EPA

Many large companies have closed production facilities as much due to delivery shortages and a drop in demand as the virus. Volkswagen is planning to ramp up production again on April 20th.

Derek Scally

CZECH REPUBLIC

The Czech Republic closed its borders, schools, pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops in mid-March, and made it mandatory to wear a face mask in public spaces. Officials say the coronavirus outbreak is now under control, and the country registered just 68 new cases on Tuesday – the lowest daily rise since March 17th.

Bicycle shops, DIY stores and craft markets reopened last Thursday, and the government is discussing whether to allow a broader range of shops to resume trading soon. However, officials are concerned by evidence of more people breaking social distancing and mask-wearing rules over the Easter weekend.

The Hyundai car factory in the Czech town of Nosovice restarted limited production on Tuesday, while Skoda workers are expected to return to work on April 27th. TPCA, a Toyota-Peugeot joint venture, plans to restart on May 4th.

Many construction firms have not officially halted work, but they are operating under strict social distancing guidelines. Some are reporting problems in sourcing materials and workers, including migrants after many returned home to Ukraine and elsewhere.

The government initially forecast that Czech schools could reopen fully in mid-May, but given signs of widespread public opposition – including a petition that quickly garnered 80,000 signatures – such a move is now considered unlikely.

Health officials say that if experts do deem it safe to reopen schools and colleges, their priority will be students in their final years who are due to sit important exams this summer.

Daniel McLaughlin

DENMARK

Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen promised to expedite easing of coronavirus restrictions thanks to infection numbers that are “better than we would have dared hope for”.

On Monday, she said health authorities had noted a significant drop in hospitalisations and had given her government the green light for the country’s reopening to be “a little bit bigger”.

“This will, of course, be done responsibly and carefully. The contract we ... entered together seems to have brought benefits. It also looks like it has worked.”

Denmark has had nearly 6,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Of these, 2,515 people have recovered and 299 have died.

Hospitals are once again taking in non-essential patients, and Danish doctors are begging patients with non-coronavirus symptoms to return.

In schools all children under 12 will return to creche, kindergarten and primary school on Wednesday. Not all parents are pleased with this, and a new Facebook group – “My child will not be a Covid19 guinea pig – already boasts more than 35,000 members.

Universities and secondary schools remain closed. State exams have been cancelled, and students will be awarded grade-average results.

Manufacturing and construction continued largely uninterrupted during the Danish lockdown, as have factories if they could guarantee social distancing rules.

Frederiksen gave no date for a reopening of retail, services and other non-essential businesses. She said just over half of these companies had continued working.

On Tuesday evening she was to seek the views of all political parties on their reopening priorities, before consulting with medical experts on the next steps.

Derek Scally

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