Larger EU countries are lifting restrictions on coronaviruses in hopes that speeding up vaccination programs will allow a faster return to normal life. But epidemiologists fear that change will come too soon and that progress may still be reversed.
In just over a week, France lifted its travel ban, Spain let its six-month-old “state of alert” expire and Germany relaxed the lockdown. Italy has also regularly eased restrictions over the past month, with people planning to return to gyms and indoor swimming pools soon.
Although infections in the EU have roughly divided by two As of early April, they remain high in some places, with hospitals under pressure and deaths per week still stand at around 1,500 in France and Italy, 1,000 in Germany and around 600 in Spain.
Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva, warned that the goal “should be to roll back the virus” across Europe ahead of the summer travel season.
“We have to get to lower levels if we don’t want to restart the problems too quickly,” he said. “If some places get stuck on a moderate to high plateau, summer and fall will be very complicated.”
Overall, the 14-day case notification rate is 277 per 100,000 population in the 30 countries monitoring by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, up from 489 on April 1.
The fall came as vaccines arrived in droves and the EU’s deployment largely focused on the most vulnerable people in society first, rather than those most at risk of infection. .
About 30% of the EU population has received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data – twice the level of a month ago, although still well below rates in major countries of Israel , the United Kingdom and the United States.
But many healthcare professionals fear the level of protection will remain too low to guard against further increases in infections as the brakes are relaxed.
It takes about two weeks for rule changes to show up in infection and hospitalization data, and deaths take even longer. So it’s still too early to say which trend will win the day: vaccinations lower rates or loosening restrictions pushing them back.
The only thing people can agree on is that next month will be crucial.
In France, Lila Bouadma, who heads an intensive care unit at Bichat hospital in Paris and advises the government, said she was concerned about her country’s plan to reopen by June 30. attached to them makes us very worried, ”she told France Info radio.
France will reopen outdoor bars and restaurants and non-food outlets on Wednesday. It still registers around 14,000 infections per day, but Flahaut’s model predicts it will drop to around 11,000 upon reopening.
Prime Minister Jean Castex defended France’s project as progressive.
“We are finally out of this crisis once and for all,” he told Le Parisien newspaper. “Action will be taken if the situation gets out of hand locally,” he added, without giving details.
But the country’s scientific advisory committee has called – so far unsuccessfully – on France to take a similar approach to Germany, which requires infections to drop to set levels before each phase of reopening.
This month, German authorities relaxed the six-month lockdown in the country after the incidence fell to 96.5 cases per 100,000 people over seven days, the first time it has fallen below 100 since March 20th. In Bavaria, for example, beer gardens, cinemas and theaters have been allowed to reopen since May 10.
But if the metric rises above 100 cases again, an “emergency brake” will automatically go into effect, with restrictions such as nighttime curfews.
Despite this, Lothar Wieler, director of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s leading public health authority, warned that the incidence remained “still too high” with around 173 of Germany’s 412 districts remaining above 100.
Jens Spahn, Minister of Health, added that while the latest figures were “gratifying”, Germans should “be very careful not to let this confidence turn into recklessness”.
Similar concerns were expressed in Spain, where the legal order underlying national coronavirus restrictions ended on May 9, sparking public jubilation and bitter political wrangling. With his passing, some areas have reduced restrictions while others face legal challenges regarding keeping curbs in place.
The initial reaction of many people was to party: the police broke up a mass rally of young people in Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol the night before the change and there were similar scenes in Barcelona and elsewhere in the country.
The politicians were less festive. The opposition popular party sharply criticized the leftist government’s refusal to replace the state of alert with new legislation.
But Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez justified his decision by saying the country was within 100 days of vaccinating 70% of the population. “The state of alert is a thing of the past”, declared the Prime Minister. “The future is called vaccination, vaccination, vaccination.”
Indeed, while the state of alert may have expired without clear measures, infections in Spain have recently been lower than other major EU economies.
But in Spain, as elsewhere, what really matters is how the disease progresses over the next few weeks.
Bruno Lina, a virologist from Lyon who advises the French government, described what he called a “critical moment”.
“It could really get better from here – it’s a real possibility given the vaccination campaign and the reduction in infections,” he said. “But we have to convince the public to continue to be careful.”
Additional reporting by Miles Johnson in Rome