France rules out new shutdown as Europe grapples with surging coronavirus cases

France on Aug 19 reported 3,776 new infections, the largest daily increase in three months.
France on Aug 19 reported 3,776 new infections, the largest daily increase in three months.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PARIS (BLOOMBERG) - French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out bringing the nation to a halt and Spain's government appeared rudderless as Europe struggles with a resurgence of the coronavirus that threatens its tentative recovery.

France on Wednesday (Aug 19) reported 3,776 new infections, the largest daily increase in three months, while Spain - which has re-emerged as an epicentre of the pandemic on the continent - recorded 3,715 new cases, the most since April 23. German infections increased by more than 1,000 for a third straight day on Thursday, and Austria reported the highest daily increase since April 4.

Europe's economies were decimated by the crisis in the second quarter and governments are desperate to foster a swift recovery without triggering a broad new wave of the disease. The uptick in cases in recent weeks has been blamed on social gatherings and travellers, but officials are reluctant to resort to the strict lockdowns imposed during the initial peak of the pandemic in March and April.

"We cannot shut down the country because the collateral damage of confinement is considerable," Mr Macron, who hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks later on Thursday, said in an interview with Paris Match magazine.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, meanwhile, is on vacation with his family and has not come out to address the public even as bad news piles up.

Governments across Europe are tightening restrictions to combat the spread. In France, masks must now be worn in busy outdoor areas of Paris and Marseilles. Toulouse will require general mask-wearing from Aug 21, Agence France-Presse reported, the first large French city to do so.

The country's response must be to "speed up vaccines, guarantee their access, and provide the best health response given what we know", Mr Macron told Paris Match, adding that, if necessary, authorities should resort to local "targeted" lockdowns. Testing, tracing, isolating the infected and broadening the wearing of masks when necessary are also key, he said.

With Spain's tourism industry reeling and the economy on its knees, some voters are on edge and any perceived political indifference could hurt the weak minority government that relies on separatists to stay in power.

WIDELY PANNED

Mr Sanchez's handling of the pandemic has been widely panned, while Italy, which served as model for Spain in being the first to head into lockdown, appears to have a better handle on the crisis. Both countries are in deep recessions and had to try to balance the need to keep people safe with the desire to try and capitalise on a lucrative summer season.

Italy has also seen a pick-up in new cases, albeit more contained than elsewhere. On Wednesday, the country reported 642 new infections, the biggest increase since May 23.

The government has closed nightclubs, banned dancing in public venues and made face masks compulsory from 6pm to 6am in all places, including streets and squares, where crowds can gather.

 
 
 
 

Recent outbreaks have been traced back to parties in seaside resorts such as Porto Rotondo in Sardinia, as well as to people returning from vacations abroad.

The government could even move to isolate Sardinia, one of the country's busiest summer vacation regions, after a rise in coronavirus cases linked to the island, Corriere della Sera reported on Thursday, citing unnamed ministry officials.

AUSTRIA'S DARK NUMBER

Austria said its recent spike can be traced back to holiday returnees from Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia and other parts of the western Balkans, as well as from Turkey. Norway added Austria, along with the UK, Ireland and Greece, to the list of high-risk destinations on Wednesday, shortly after Austria expanded its own list to include the Spanish Balearic Islands.

As many as 300,000 Austrians - 12 times the official figure - may have been infected with the virus, a much higher factor for the so-called dark number than previously thought, the head of Austrian health agency Ages said in an television interview late on Wednesday.

In the latest clampdown on travel within the region, Germany's Robert Koch Institute, which called the recent trends "very concerning", added two coastal regions in Croatia and part of Romania to its list of risk areas, while Luxembourg and three other Romanian regions were no longer seen as a concern. The advisory requires people returning from those areas to quarantine for two weeks or present a negative test.

The UK is expected to remove Croatia from its quarantine exemption list as soon as Thursday, the Guardian reported, without saying where it obtained the information. If the country is taken off the list, it would mean people arriving in the UK from Croatia will have to quarantine for 14 days.

 
 

In Sweden, the government's decision to adopt a light-touch strategy to tackle the pandemic pushed its death toll per capita many times higher than in the rest of the Nordic region.

However, the situation improved dramatically in July. The pace of infections in the country is now converging with those of neighbouring Denmark and Norway, where governments are telling citizens to use face masks for the first time.