Covid-19 hot spots show signs Europe's new wave may be cresting

The encouraging signs are emerging after many European countries enacted new restrictions in an effort to slow the pandemic. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Covid-19's latest wave continues to swell, with infections far surpassing official levels last winter and spring. Look beneath the surface, though, and there are glimmers of hope in some of the worst-hit European countries.

With France, Spain, Britain and Italy - alongside Russia - all recording more than one million cases, the headlines remain grim. As the US surpasses 10 million infections, Europe has been another epicentre of the pandemic's autumn surge.

Over the past week, however, the number of new cases has plateaued or begun to ease in Britain, Germany and France. Harder-hit small countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic have posted big declines in daily infection rates. Belgium's latest daily tally of about 4,300 new cases, for example, was down from peak levels of more than 20,000 a day less than two weeks ago.

The encouraging signs are emerging after many European countries enacted new restrictions, including closing non-essential shops, bars and restaurants, in an effort to slow the pandemic. Ireland, one of the first to reimpose curbs, cut the number of new infections to 240 in the latest 24 hours from more than 1,200 a day in mid-October.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the new numbers are encouraging but that it's too early to speak of a new trend. The effect of the new measures can't be evaluated yet, a spokesman said.

Europe passed the US in infection rates earlier in the autumn, and they remain higher in France, Italy, Britain and Spain. Yet the US has now pushed ahead of the continent as a whole again. The latest daily tally by website Our World in Data shows the EU at 320 new daily cases per million people, compared with 445 per million for the US.

Across much of Europe, deaths are still on the rise, with the World Health Organisation's tally for the region, including Russia, increasing 44 per cent in the week through Nov 8. Occupancy of hospital intensive-care units in France keeps increasing, with Covid-19 wards at 94 per cent of capacity as at Wednesday.

Those are lagging indicators, as it takes a while for the virus to take hold and for the infection to worsen. Similarly, a levelling off or decline in new cases won't immediately be reflected in hospitalisation or fatality rates.

Officials have also learnt to be cautious from their experience earlier this year, when the virus was in broad retreat before the new surge that began late in the summer.

"This is a marathon and we're close to the start, not close to the finish," Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said in a broadcast interview, acknowledging some signs of improvement.

"We have to prepare ourselves for longer-term measures."

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