New wave of Covid-19 infections sweeping across Europe

Central European, Balkan and Baltic states bring in new round of restrictions to cope with rising hospitalisations as vaccine rollouts stall

Healthcare workers  help a patient in a wheelchair from a  special ambulance   in the town of Semily, Czech Republic.   Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Healthcare workers help a patient in a wheelchair from a special ambulance in the town of Semily, Czech Republic. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

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A fresh wave of Covid-19 infections is sweeping across Europe, threatening a renewed round of restrictions to cope with rising hospitalisations and deaths as vaccine supply problems and bumpy rollouts hamper inoculation campaigns.

Coronavirus infections have been increasing across the region for three weeks straight, and more people are now dying of the disease in Europe than they were one year ago, the World Health Organisation warned this week.

The focal point of the resurgence is in the central European, Balkan and Baltic states, where rates of disease and hospitalisation were “now among the highest in the world”, the organisation’s regional director Hans Kluge said.

There are signs that new more infectious variants are driving the rise, with the highly contagious variant that first emerged in Britain now making up 60 per cent of cases in hard-hit Poland and rising, the Polish government announced on Friday. It came as the country of 38 million reported 27,278 new coronavirus cases in a day, a record for 2021.

Infections are at or close to the worst they have ever been in countries including Norway, Finland, Estonia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant that first emerged in Britain and contributed to Ireland’s Christmas surge is becoming the “predominant” strain across the region, the WHO warned.

Nevertheless, Ireland is among countries that have managed to bring down infections despite the infectiousness of the strain, along with Portugal and the UK.

“We’re seeing the numbers starting to jump back up. Everyone is beginning to put justifiable hope in the vaccines,” said the WHO’s emergencies chief Dr Mike Ryan. “But now is not the time to let up, now is not the time to relax, or so many of us are going to be back in lockdowns again.”

Restrictions

With infections rising several governments are reluctantly extending lockdowns or facing the prospect of imposing fresh curbs.

“The rising case numbers may mean that we cannot take further opening steps in the weeks to come. On the contrary, we may even have to take steps backwards,” Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn told journalists, dampening hopes of eased restrictions.

A pledge by French president Emmanuel Macron earlier this year to exit the pandemic without a renewed national lockdown is now cracking under the pressure of a new surge in infections and overflowing intensive care units in parts of France, while Italy is preparing for stay-at-home orders for the Easter weekend. 

French prime minister Jean Castex is vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine at the L’hôpital d’Instruction des Armées Begin in Saint-Mande, Paris, on Friday. Photograph: Thomas Coex/Getty Images
French prime minister Jean Castex is vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine at the L’hôpital d’Instruction des Armées Begin in Saint-Mande, Paris, on Friday. Photograph: Thomas Coex/Getty Images

In the Netherlands, where an evening curfew is in place, authorities are grappling with whether restrictions should be extended or eased after the biggest jump in infections since January came this week on top of a rising hospitalisation rate.

Meanwhile in Ukraine, prime minister Denys Shmygal told local authorities not to wait for national orders but to bring in tighter curbs to respond to rising cases after a record number of 4,887 people were hospitalised with Covid-19 on Tuesday.

“The situation with the coronavirus is disappointing, there are a lot of hospitalisations and severe cases. New strains spread quickly and lead to more dire consequences,” he said in a televised government meeting.

“A local government has the right to increase restrictions, and therefore I urge local authorities not to wait for any instructions, but to make the necessary decisions – if you see an increase in the number of sick people, the number of hospitalised – introduce additional restrictions.”

Vaccines 

The rate of vaccination rollouts in the EU has been badly affected by steep shortfalls in deliveries by the British-Swedish multinational AstraZeneca, which is set to provide just 30 million doses instead of the 90 million it had been contracted to supply between January and March.

National leaders are set to discuss whether to make vaccine exports from the EU to third countries contingent on whether the recipients also allow jabs and ingredients to be sent back.

The bloc exported more than 40 per cent of locally-manufactured vaccines since February, making it the world’s leading producer even as supplies were squeezed at home, with the largest chunk going to the UK and some to the United States, which has blocked exports in the other direction.

Vaccination rates across the continent vary according to local organisation and national decisions during the EU procurement process last year to turn down Pfizer and Moderna doses in favour of cheaper AstraZeneca jabs.

Bulgaria and Latvia have administered enough jabs to cover only about five in 100 people in their population, according to figures collated by Our World in Data, while Estonia, Lithuania, and Denmark are at three times that rate.

Malta’s small population of 500,000 and purchase of additional jabs other EU countries had declined has made it a leader in the bloc, at 30 doses per 100 compared with the United Kingdom’s 40.

Nearly a dozen countries resumed administering AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine on Friday after pausing for a European Medicines Agency review of blood-clotting cases that concluded the vaccine is safe and effective. However, Denmark and Sweden both said they needed more time to make a decision, while France’s medical regulator opted to restrict the vaccine for people aged over 55.

“We’re making progress,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.