Coronavirus deaths ease in Europe as worst-hit countries get respite

A woman sits overlooking the Gianicolo hill in Rome, on April 19, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - The coronavirus pandemic showed the first signs of easing in Europe as Italy, Spain and France, the region's hardest-hit countries, reported the smallest increases in fatalities in weeks and Germany prepared to jump-start commercial life again.

Coronavirus deaths in Spain rose by 410 to 20,453 on Sunday (April 19), the smallest one-day increase since March 22, according to the health ministry.

Italy reported the fewest deaths in a week, with 433 deaths linked to the virus, while fatalities in France rose at the slowest pace in three weeks.

Data in Germany and the UK also showed social-distancing measures taking hold. Still, emerging from lockdowns isn't following a uniform pattern.

Germany is allowing smaller stores, car dealerships, bike shops and book stores to reopen on Monday, and schools will begin readmitting some students in early May in the first few steps to normalcy.

In Spain, by contrast, a lockdown that's been in place since mid-March could be extended well into May, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, and Italy won't do any significant easing before May 4.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government is still working on its plan to reopen the country from its virus-induced hibernation on around May 11.

While the numbers reported in some of the worst affected countries, including Spain, Italy and the UK are encouraging, governments are wary of loosening restrictions too soon and too widely to avoid a second wave of mass infections.

Spain is the second European country after Italy to report more than 20,000 deaths linked to the virus, out of a total of 195,944 people who have been infected.

"Spain has contained the brutal attack of the pandemic," Sanchez said in a nationally televised speech on Saturday. "The gains aren't enough yet, and they are fragile."

Across the border in Portugal, the daily increase in new confirmed coronavirus cases was also the lowest in a month. Compared with Spain, the government has shut down the economy to a lesser degree, with industrial and transport activities allowed to continue.

The Netherlands reported 83 new deaths, marking the lowest daily increase since March 26.

ECONOMIC FALLOUT

France has also shown signs of a lockdown bearing fruit. The country reported total deaths of 19,718.

While the rate is slowing, France is close to becoming the fourth country to report more than 20,000 deaths from the virus, behind Italy, the US and Spain.

"Our life, starting from May 11, won't be the life before the lockdown," Philippe said at a press conference. "Not immediately and probably not for a long time. But as we achieved the lockdown together, we will achieve the end of the lockdown together."

Managing the economic and social fallout from the lockdowns is becoming increasingly difficult for governments as the strain on businesses and workers intensifies.

The coronavirus is likely to trigger the worst recession in the European Union's history, and some officials warned that slump could be worse than the 7.5% drop predicted for the region by the International Monetary Fund.

To bolster the response, European countries will need at least 500 billion euros (US$544 billion) in additional funding in a second round of coronavirus relief, European Stability Mechanism Director General Klaus Regling told Corriere della Sera.

That's on top of a 540 billion-euro package agreed by EU finance ministers earlier this month.

BAD BANK

Among steps being discussed is the creation of a so-called bad bank that would shoulder billions of euros in toxic assets from lenders' balance sheets, the Financial Times reported on Sunday, citing officials including Yannis Stournaras, the governor of the Bank of Greece and a member of the governing council of the European Central Bank.

The Italian government's next coronavirus rescue package will include "serious incentives for tourism companies," Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini said on Italian television on Saturday, noting that tourism accounts for about 13% of the economy.

The government is also working on ways to help lower-income families afford vacations after the nationwide lockdown lifts, he said. While the German initiative to reopen some retail space was welcomed, it only applies to outlets with 800 sqm of space.

That's frozen out many larger shopping centres and department stores, which complain the approach is arbitrary and penalises bigger businesses. The government says smaller retailers have less of a buffer to make it through a longer-term hiatus.

UK WEIGHS OPTIONS

In Italy, some companies are also resuming activities tomorrow, including shipyards and a work space operated by luxury retailer Gucci near Florence.

The UK is also examining a staged easing of the lockdown, with the hospitality industry that includes pubs and restaurants among the last to reopen, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said on Sunday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to recover from his Covid-19 infection and is in "cheerful spirits," Gove told Sky in a separate interview.

The UK government said on April 16 that it would extend the country's lockdown by at least three more weeks. New cases rose by 5,850, figures released on Sunday showed, taking the total number of people who have tested positive to 120,067.

Fatalities reached 16,060, an increase of 596, the fewest since April 6 and almost a third down from the number of deaths reported a day earlier.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.