Coronavirus: Europe's leaders tiptoe around question of when to ease restrictions, what to lift

The return to normality will be very gradual, and is unlikely to be applied across the continent. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON - Europe is emerging from its strict coronavirus lockdown period, with countries such as France and Spain announcing moves to ease restrictions on economic activities and citizens' movement.

Still, the return to normality will be very gradual, and is unlikely to be applied across the continent, largely because countries like Britain are still behind the pandemic curve.

Every European leader insists that the strict measures which confined people to their homes for over a month have worked as intended, by reducing the number of victims.

And no European government dares suggest that the gradual lifting of these measures signifies the end of the health crisis; as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez put it earlier this week, "the virus is still lurking", so this would be a return to a "new normality" rather than old certainties.

Still, for the first time in months, European politicians are now prepared to make the argument that the damage inflicted on national economies by the lockdown is beginning to outweigh the undoubted health benefits of slowing down rates of infection.

Success of this strategy does, therefore, depend on lifting restrictions just enough to kick-start the economy without kick-starting the pandemic as well; "a little too much carelessness and the epidemic will start again, a little too much prudence and the whole country will sink" is how the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who administered his country's lockdown measures since March 17, described his government's dilemma.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, governments are tiptoeing into a very gradual lifting of restrictions.

Most easing measures announced now will only begin to be applied in Europe from next Monday, and even then, very tentatively.

In Spain, for instance, the lifting of restrictions will be implemented first in a number of small outlying islands, before being gradually extended to the rest of mainland Spain on a region-by-region basis.

In Italy, however, there is still no target date when the government will allow people to move from one region to the next. And, in France, the truly meaningful lifting of restrictions will only kick in nationwide in more than two weeks from now, on May 11.

There are also wide differences between European governments on which activities they are prepared to see resume.

Spain and Italy have decided that most of their schools will not reopen until a new education year begins in September; this will mean that many young parents will not be able to return to their workplaces since they will have to look after their children.

France, however, unveiled plans to gradually resume school classes in two weeks.

And while the French governments is proposing to allow most businesses to reopen during the coming month, bars and restaurants will remain shut in the country for longer, while in Spain restaurants which have open air seating spaces can reopen, provided that not more than a third of their seating capacity is used at any time.

Meanwhile, in Italy, restaurants can only look forward to the lifting of restrictions in early June.

Many questions about how these procedures will work are yet to be answered.

One area of major concern is the availability of face masks, whose use is going to be made compulsory as part of the relaxation of restrictions.

The French government claims that it is receiving around 100 million surgical masks a week, and that stock should be sufficient for the public; its citizens will soon be able to buy masks from a newly created online platform managed by the French postal service.

Meanwhile Italy has announced measures that it will cap the price charged for facial masks at half a euro (76 Singapore cents) each, and claims that availability will be assured.

Still, the record of European governments in ensuring adequate supplies of protective equipment is not exactly stellar.

Bigger questions loom over the availability of public transport, and particularly how to avoid rush hour congestion by commuters, a sure conduit for virus infections. Governments have asked employers to offer flexible working hours, but have offered no guidance as to what this may mean.

Little of this matters in Britain, which implemented lockdown measures two weeks later than most of Europe and where the government still deems it too early to consider lifting them.

Still, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who returned to work only this week after a life-threatening brush with the virus, has promised to "fire up the engines" of the national economy with a plan for "refining" the current lockdown, which may be revealed by the end of this week.

All eyes now are on Germany, which began lifting restrictions last week.

And, sadly, only to promptly experience a rise in infection rates.

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