BRUSSELS • Millions of Europeans will face greater restrictions on movement this week as governments escalated efforts to check the surge in coronavirus cases.
The increased restrictions come as new cases hit daily records across much of the continent.
Switzerland said gatherings of more than 15 people in public places will be banned from today and masks must be worn in all indoor public places.
An order to wear masks on public transport has been extended to cover train stations, airports, bus and tram stops, said the government after an extraordinary meeting, replacing a patchwork of regulations that had applied across Switzerland's different regions.
The obligation to wear a mask will also apply to shops, schools, churches and cinemas.
"The Covid-19 infection rate has increased at a very quick rate," Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga said. "Unlike before, it is affecting all cantons and all age groups. With winter coming, it is very important to slow the spread of the virus now. Every day counts."
Switzerland, a country of 8.6 million people, last Friday reported the highest daily number of infections since the Covid-19 crisis began, with 3,105 new cases. So far, 74,422 people have been infected, and 1,823 people have died.
In Ireland, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris yesterday told national broadcaster RTE the government will bring in "decisive" nationwide curbs today but will stop short of reintroducing the kind of lockdown imposed earlier this year.
"The action will be decisive and it will be nationwide action," said Mr Harris, who was the health minister during one of Europe's strictest lockdowns from the end of March to mid-May.
"Tomorrow we will have to bring in more restrictions. Level 3 has not worked... I don't want to be pedantic about the phrase lockdown as I don't think that's exactly where we're going - but there will certainly be more restrictions."
Last Saturday, Ireland broke its record for the number of cases in a single day for the fourth time in the space of a week, bringing cases per 100,000 people in the past 14 days to 232, the 12th highest rate among the 31 countries monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
The government moved three counties on its open border with Northern Ireland, which is harder hit by Covid-19, to level 4 of its five-step framework last Wednesday, and banned most visits to homes across the country. The other 23 counties are on level 3, which bans all indoor restaurant dining.
Under level 4, only essential retail can stay open, although the government has broadened that category since March.
Under level 5, people would be asked to stay home, but can exercise within 5km, and restaurants can operate only a takeaway and delivery service.
In Belgium, Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said hospitality restrictions, along with a midnight to 5am curfew and curbs on alcohol sales and gatherings, will take effect from today for four weeks. Work from home will be mandatory wherever possible. Bars in Brussels were already closed last week.
"By many measures, the numbers are worse than they were in March or April," Mr de Croo said. "And I bring no good message: Those numbers will likely keep rising in the coming days."
However, the Czech Republic, which has the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Europe, will wait at least two weeks before deciding whether to order a full lockdown, Deputy Prime Minister Karel Havlicek said yesterday.
In the past week, bars and restaurants were ordered to close except for takeout orders, and schools shifted to distance learning. Sport and fitness clubs, theatres and cinemas had already been shut, but shops have remained open. Last Saturday, the Czech Republic reported 8,713 new coronavirus cases, its largest daily total at a weekend. Since schools reopened last month, the cumulative number of cases has risen almost seven times.
"We will not decide this week about a lockdown," Mr Havlicek said on Czech Television. "We have clearly said we will wait (until Nov 2) for results."
Over in the French capital Paris, which has been under a month-long night-time curfew since last Saturday evening, the streets were eerily empty overnight apart from a few stragglers risking a €135 (S$215) fine unless they can provide a certificate to show they have good reason to be out and about.
Food delivery workers zigzagged the streets on bikes or scooters, delivering meals to now home-bound diners in a city where it is common to sit down to a meal after 9pm. A handful of municipal buses circulated without impediment down unusually car-free lanes, though mostly empty themselves.
Curfews are also in place in the cities of Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, Aix-Marseille, Rouen and Grenoble.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE