BERLIN/PARIS (REUTERS) - French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered their countries back into lockdown on Wednesday (Oct 28), as a massive second wave of coronavirus infections threatened to overwhelm Europe before the winter.
World stock markets went into a dive in response to the news that Europe's biggest economies were imposing nationwide restrictions almost as severe as the ones that drove the global economy this year into its deepest recession in generations.
"The virus is circulating at a speed that not even the most pessimistic forecasts had anticipated," Mr Macron said in a televised address. "Like all our neighbours, we are submerged by the sudden acceleration of the virus.
"We are all in the same position: overrun by a second wave which we know will be harder, more deadly than the first," he said. "I have decided that we need to return to the lockdown which stopped the virus."
Under the new French measures which will come into force on Friday, people will be required to stay in their homes except to buy essential goods, seek medical attention, or exercise for up to one hour a day.
They will be permitted to go to work if their employer deems it impossible for them to do the job from home. Schools will stay open.
As in the darkest days of spring, anyone leaving their home in France will now have to carry a document justifying being outside, which can be checked by police.
Germany will shut bars, restaurants and theatres from Nov 2-30 under measures agreed between Dr Merkel and heads of regional governments.
Schools will stay open, and shops will be allowed to operate with strict limits on access.
"We need to take action now," Dr Merkel said. "Our health system can still cope with this challenge today, but at this speed of infections it will reach the limits of its capacity within weeks."
Her finance minister Olaf Scholz posted on Twitter: "November will be a month of truth. The increasing numbers of infections are forcing us to take tough countermeasures in order to break the second wave."
France has surged above 36,000 new cases a day.
Germany, which was less hard-hit than its European neighbours early this year, has seen an exponential rise in cases.
President Donald Trump has played down the virus and shows no sign of cancelling public rallies where his supporters often refuse to wear masks or keep a safe distance.
European stock markets closed at their lowest levels since late May on Wednesday. In the US, the S&P 500 was down 3 per cent.
In an effort to blunt the economic impact, Germany will set aside up to €10 billion (S$16 billion) to partly reimburse companies for lost sales.
Italy has set aside more than €5 billion.
If we wait it will be too late
While leaders have been desperate to avoid the crippling cost of lockdowns, the new restrictions reflect alarm at the galloping pace of the pandemic from Spain, France and Germany to Russia, Poland and Bulgaria.
"If we wait until the intensive care units are full, it will be too late," said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, whose country already has taken in patients from its neighbour the Netherlands, where hospitals have reached their limits.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said on Wednesday that hospital beds were at 90 per cent of capacity in 16 regions of the country, while officials have warned that even well-equipped health systems like those in France and Switzerland could reach breaking point within days.
Hopes that new treatments might curb the spread were dented when the head of Britain's vaccine procurement task force said that a fully effective vaccine may never be developed and that early versions were likely to be imperfect.
The latest figures from the World Health Organisation on Tuesday showed Europe reported 1.3 million new cases in the past seven days, nearly half the 2.9 million reported worldwide, with over 11,700 deaths, a 37 per cent jump over the previous week.
So far, more than 42 million cases and more than 1.1 million deaths have been recorded worldwide from the virus, which was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of last year.
Governments across Europe have been under fire for a lack of coordination and for failing to use a lull in cases over the summer to bolster defences, leaving hospitals unprepared.
Since the weekend, police and protesters have clashed repeatedly in Italian cities from Naples to Turin.
Restaurant owners and business groups have been critical.
"At 6pm, public transport is often crowded. You take the risk because you have to get to work. You wear a mask, you take hand gel with you," Mr Elio Venafro said after getting off a bus in central Rome on Wednesday. "It's the new normal."