Europe watches as Spain, France and Germany ease lockdowns amid slowing coronavirus spread

People walk on the banks of the river Seine, in Paris, on May 9, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

MADRID (BLOOMBERG) - New coronavirus infections and deaths declined in Germany, France and Spain as all of Europe watches their efforts to gradually ease the lockdowns that sought to tame the pandemic.

Spain, which lifted a ban on outdoor exercise last Saturday (May 2), recorded the fewest new cases and deaths in five days. Small shops in much of the country are preparing to reopen on Monday, three weeks after Germany took a similar step. Daily deaths in Italy fell to less than 200 for only the third time since mid-March. France reported 80 new deaths, the fewest since at least March 20.

France is loosening restrictions on businesses and stores on Monday, though strict controls will remain on public transport in Paris. Germany is set to open restaurants, hotels and all shops and restart professional soccer games. Only parts of Spain will get a respite because restrictions won't be eased yet in cities including Barcelona and Madrid, the epicentre of the country's outbreak.

"This 51 per cent of the Spanish population will get back a greater part of their lives" after the whole country fought the outbreak, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Saturday. Spain has the most number of confirmed cases in Europe.

Despite more than 150,000 deaths in Europe, leaders are feeling the heat to accelerate a return to normality and restart an economy that may be set to contract the most since the Great Depression. While European Union countries are testing the waters on rekindling social and economic life, borders will remain shut until mid-June, limiting transport and commerce.

Late on Friday, euro-area finance ministers agreed to allow the region's bailout fund to extend an estimated US$260 billion (S$367.3 billion) in credit lines to each of the bloc's governments on concessionary terms as leaders seek to cushion the economic blow of the pandemic. France's Parliament on Saturday extended the country's public-health emergency until July, prolonging the government's special powers to stem the pandemic.

Outside the euro region, Russia's new cases topped 10,000 for a seventh straight day, leapfrogging on Friday the size of the outbreak in France and nearing levels recorded in the UK, Italy, and Spain, the region's hardest-hit countries.

The strictness of lockdown measures varies greatly in Eastern Europe. Belarus on Saturday ignored the pandemic risk and held a large military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. Thousands gathered in the streets of Minsk for the event, with little social distancing. The country's authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said that not holding the event would be a "betrayal" of the country's war dead.


In the UK, the end of the war was commemorated with a two-minute silence on Friday, but no public gatherings were sanctioned. With more than 31,500 fatalities, the UK has suffered the most deaths from the virus in Europe. Another 346 deaths were reported on Saturday, with almost 4,000 new cases of the virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was at risk of dying from Covid-19 last month, is under pressure to ease the country's lockdown even after a week in which the death toll exceeded 600 on several days. Johnson will lay out a road map out of the lockdown on Sunday, though he is expected to largely keep restrictions in place until June.

Virus-related restrictions are prompting Britons in crowded cities to look to move to the countryside in record numbers, the Guardian reported. Inverness in the Scottish Highlands saw the biggest year-on-year increase, with home searches up 167 per cent, the paper said.

Johnson's government has been criticised for being slow to respond to the risks of the virus even after cases began to spread in the UK in January. Now, there may be evidence that the virus may have been in Europe much earlier than that.

The outbreak could have started as early as October, according to a joint UK-French study cited by the Telegraph. A French athlete who participated in the World Military Games held in Wuhan, China in October suffered symptoms matching Covid-19, the paper said.

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