Worried European nations revive curfews, lockdowns amid 'exponential growth' in Covid-19

London faces tighter restrictions within days, according to reports. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS/PRAGUE (REUTERS) - France imposed curfews while other European nations are closing schools, cancelling surgeries and enlisting student medics as overwhelmed authorities face the nightmare scenario of a Covid-19 resurgence at the onset of winter.

With new cases hitting about 100,000 daily, Europe has by a wide margin overtaken the United States, where more than 51,000 Covid-19 infections are reported on average every day.

As cases in France climbed rapidly, President Emmanuel Macron announced night curfews for four weeks from Saturday (Oct 17) in Paris and other major cities, affecting almost one-third of the country's 67 million people.

Macron said in an interview on national television that the curfews were to halt temporarily "the parties, the moments of conviviality where there are 50 or 60 people, festive evenings because, unfortunately, these are vectors for the acceleration of the disease." "We'll get through this if we stick together," he said.

Most European governments eased lockdowns over the summer to start reviving economies already battered by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the return of normal activity - from packed restaurants to new university terms - fuelled a sharp spike in cases all over the continent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she and leaders of Germany's 16 states agreed on Wednesday (Oct 14) on tougher measures without detailing them. "We are already in a phase of exponential growth, the daily numbers show that," she said.

Bars and pubs were among the first to shut or face earlier closing in the new lockdowns, but now the surging infection rates are also testing governments' resolve to keep schools and non-Covid medical care going.

Even Pope Francis was subject to new coronavirus rules, staying put at a safe distance from well-wishers at his weekly audience on Wednesday.

In Lisbon, football fans were unsurprised after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive for the virus, saying it simply showed everyone was at risk of getting infected.

The Czech Republic, with Europe's worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students. Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.

"Sometimes we are at the edge of crying," said Lenka Krejcova, a head nurse at Slany hospital near Prague, as builders hurried to turn a general ward into a Covid-19 department.

Poland is ramping up training for nurses and considering creating military field hospitals, Moscow is to move many students to online learning and Northern Ireland is closing schools for two weeks and restaurants for four.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin described Northern Ireland's rise in cases as "hugely worrying," and the government increased restrictions in three counties on the border as well as almost all visits to homes across the country.

"We are on the brink of disaster," immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski said in Poland, which reported a record 6,526 infections and 116 deaths on Wednesday.

Efforts to develop a vaccine hit snags in some areas, with Johnson & Johnson pausing its trial after an unexplained illness in a study participant. AstraZeneca's U.S. trial has remained on hold for more than a month.

Russia, which recorded a record daily increase in cases, has meanwhile granted regulatory approval to a second vaccine.

Impossible choices

Germany, England and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, but in Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to curb contagion.

The Netherlands returned to partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants, but kept schools open.

European infections have been running at an average of almost 100,000 a day - about a third of the global total - forcing governments to tighten restrictions while attempting to avoid destroying livelihoods.

The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe's new cases in the week to Oct 11, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, with the world's highest number of confirmed infections, 22 states have so far in October set records for increases in new cases. But deaths are trending downward and have averaged 700 a day over the last week.

Field hospitals

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces opposition calls for another national lockdown in England, but has so far resisted. Hospital admissions, however, are climbing and field hospitals constructed in the spring are once more being readied.

London faces tighter restrictions within days, the Financial Times reported.

In Spain, authorities in Catalonia ordered bars and restaurants to close for 15 days and limited the numbers of people allowed in shops.

In Belgium, with Europe's second worst infection rate per capita, hospitals must now reserve a quarter of their beds for Covid-19 patients.

"We can't see the end of the tunnel today," Renaud Mazy, managing director of the University Clinics of Saint-Luc in Brussels, told La Premiere radio.

In Australia, one of the most successful countries in fighting the virus, clusters have emerged in the two most populous states, prompting New South Wales to delay relaxing some restrictions.

And new curbs have been imposed in Malaysia, where the royal palace postponed all meetings for two weeks.

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