Luxembourg says increased testing behind coronavirus jump that has alarmed neighbours

Luxembourg Premier Xavier Bettel said that the country "shouldn't be punished" for its decision "to test, test, test". PHOTO: REUTERS

LUXEMBOURG (BLOOMBERG) - Luxembourg was on the verge of becoming a role model in tackling the pandemic. The European Union's richest nation now finds itself blacklisted by several of its neighbours.

Just a few weeks ago, the Grand-Duchy was winning. French paper Le Monde on June 9 described Luxembourg as a "laboratory for successful management of the coronavirus".

But July brought a dreaded second wave, with more than 1,000 infections over a few days - from a population of just over 620,000 people - and numbers continue to rise.

But like United States President Donald Trump, Luxembourgish leaders have found an easy target: the country's ambitious testing programme.

Premier Xavier Bettel said on July 17 that the country "shouldn't be punished" for its decision "to test, test, test".

Luxembourg is Europe's biggest tester, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's latest findings.

But last week it became the only EU nation added to Germany's Robert Koch Institute list of risk areas.

At least 10 European countries have adopted some restrictions for Luxembourgers, with Denmark, Lithuania and Slovenia barring them altogether. Switzerland will add Luxembourg as a risk area this week.

"We don't deny that we have all these cases, and our goal remains to find all of them as early as possible," Luxembourg Health Minister Paulette Lenert said in an interview.

"It's just a bit unfair when countries who don't have this same ambition are just looking at this."

Included in the 370,500 people Luxembourg has tested since the start of the crisis are workers from neighbouring Belgium, France and Germany.

In normal times, more than 200,000 people cross the border every day. This has led to slightly skewed results, Ms Lenert said.

Virus statistics now differentiate between residents and non-residents.

"Of course, the higher numbers worry us," Ms Lenert said. "We really believe in our strategy and that identifying asymptomatic people as early as possible will help us keep things under control."

Gatherings without the recommended precautions are seen as the main culprit.

"It's a reality that restrictions are not being respected by a number of people, making them in some way a risk to others," Mr Bettel said July 19, before announcing new curbs.

The size of groups meeting in homes and in public will be cut to 10 from 20.

Luxembourg eased lockdown measures in May, adopting an ambitious strategy to test across the nation, including asymptomatic people.

In the past week, only 13 per cent of the positive results came from the large-scale testing, "but these are people who wouldn't even be caught in other countries", Ms Lenert said.

Countries such as South Korea have been seen as having managed the virus well with aggressive testing programs designed to identify and isolate infected people while quarantining those who have been exposed.

The large-scale testing campaign through the end of July costs about €40 million (S$64.3 million).

Parliament on Tuesday voted in favour of extending it for seven more months, for an additional €60 million.

While masks remain obligatory in closed spaces or in close proximity with people, and strict rules apply to bars and restaurants, new infections have been spiking since the end of June.

"Luxembourg has become a victim of its testing strategy that lays bare a lot of what other countries may not see yet," Ms Lenert said.

Luxembourg will not change its approach, "even if it has to pay the price now".

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