Other countries may see Covid-19 outbreaks like Italy’s, EU body warns

Shutdowns to fight pandemic as disease control centre warns outbreaks may worsen

The high death tolls and mass coronavirus outbreaks seen in China and Italy are likely to soon occur in other countries around Europe, the European Union's disease prevention agency warned on Thursday.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) called for immediate action across the continent to slow down the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus, which has infected more than 26,000 people across Europe.

“The speed with which Covid-19 can cause nationally incapacitating epidemics once transmission within the community is established indicates that in a few weeks or even days it is likely that similar situations to those seen in China and Italy may be seen in other EU/EEA countries or the UK,” the ECDC said.

With no vaccines for the virus, little evidence of effective treatment and presumably no pre-existing immunity in the population to the new disease, “everyone in the population is assumed to be susceptible”, it advised.

People with existing conditions, compromised immune systems or aged over 70 are most at risk of death. The rapid spread of the virus means the number of people who are sick at one time can overwhelm health systems, leaving not enough equipment or staff to treat all patients.

Italy announced on Thursday the virus had killed almost 200 people in 24 hours, bringing its death toll to 1,016. Without enough intensive care beds and breathing machines for the patients that need them in the country, its professional body of anaesthesiologists issued guidelines to help doctors decide which patients not to treat. It has advised putting those with the greatest chance of survival first.

Desperate to slow the spread, the Rome government put the entire country in quarantine this week, ordering citizens not to leave their houses except for essential reasons and allowing only vital services such as pharmacies and grocery stores to remain open.

Cities across Europe emptied out as other authorities from Spain to Denmark shut schools and universities and banned large public events.

In countries that have been slower to take sweeping measures, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, some local authorities began to take matters into their own hands.

Unilateral lockdown

The mayor of the seaside town of Knokke-Heist in Belgium unilaterally announced a local lockdown.

"If no one dares to make a decision in this country, I will do it," mayor Leopold Lippens declared to local media. "If necessary, I will also close all restaurants and shops."

All members of the Spanish cabinet as well as King Felipe and Queen Letizia are being tested for Covid-19 after Madrid's equality minister, Irene Montero, became the latest legislator to be diagnosed with the virus. Confirmed cases surged to 3,059 in Spain on Thursday, with 86 deaths.

Border checks began reappearing across Europe after decades of easing travel between states. Slovenia and Austria placed health checks on their borders with Italy, Slovakia shut down to non-residents, and Malta banned travel with Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland.

European citizens are now barred from entering Guatemala, and US citizens are advised against all but essential travel to most of Europe. EU chiefs hit out at US president Donald Trump's decision to bar travellers from most of Europe – excepting Ireland and the United Kingdom – saying the bloc "disapproves" of the measure.