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COVID in Europe: Austria begins lockdown amid stark warning in Germany


A woman rides a bicycle along an empty street in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. - Copyright Credit: AP

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in various parts of Europe as the cold weather has affected the spread of the virus.

Countries on the Old Continent are attempting to curb the spike through various means - from a national lockdown in Austria, to limiting access to certain services elsewhere, or pushing for an increase in vaccination rates.

Around 60% of people in Western Europe are fully immunised against COVID-19, but only about half as many are vaccinated in Eastern Europe.

The World Health Organization reported on Tuesday last week (November 16) that coronavirus deaths in Europe rose 5% in the previous week, making it the only region in the world where COVID-19 deaths increased.

Here is a run-down of the latest situation in some of the European countries.


Austria

Austria has gone back into a national lockdown as of Monday (November 22), becoming the first EU country to take such a measure in the face of the COVID-19 resurgence.

The lockdown will last at least 10 days but could extend to 20, officials said.

Conservative Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg has also said that vaccination will become compulsory from February 1.

The announcement came a few days after the country implemented a nationwide lockdown for people who are unvaccinated, which came into force on November 15, but this did not slow the spread of the virus sufficiently.

People 12 years and older are banned from going outside except for essential activities such as work, attending classes, grocery shopping, or for a walk. The number of police patrols has been increased and those found breaking the rules can be fined up to €1,450.

"In the long term, the way out of this vicious circle we are in - and it is a vicious circle, we are stumbling from wave to lockdown, and that canít carry on ad infinitum - is only vaccination," Schallenberg said earlier this week.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), just over 64% of the population was fully vaccinated by November 19, slightly below the EU average (65.5%). Coronavirus cases have continued to rise, hitting a record daily total of 15,809 on Friday.

Authorities in Austria said on November 17 that travellers would need to show a negative PCR test upon entering the country. Previously, results from the cheaper lateral flow tests were allowed.

 

Belgium

Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the capital Brussels on Sunday, protesting against reinforced COVID-19 restrictions.

Police estimated there were some 35,000 at the rally, but many had already left when the demonstration descended into violence. Several hundred people started pelting police, smashing cars and setting garbage bins ablaze, with the police deploying water cannons to try to control the crowd.

From Monday 22 November, employees are expected to work from home for at least four days a week, with mask-wearing compulsory in public places.

Anyone over 10 years old must wear one on public transport, in bars and restaurants, theatres and cinemas, and at public events including those held outdoors.

Until now, health passes have allowed for masks to be taken off indoors. The pass is to be extended to Christmas markets, events with over 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors, and private events in bars and restaurants.

Vaccinations for children aged between five and 11 will begin "as soon as possible" on a voluntary basis, following the green light from Belgian regulators and approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which has been analysing the results of clinical tests of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on children.

Hospital admissions are going up at a rate of 30% per week and have reached their highest level since May. More than a quarter of hospital patients are in ICU, further straining the healthcare system.

Belgium has been in the midst of a spike in cases since about a month ago, when the government reimposed some restrictions, having relaxed them a few weeks earlier. However, infections have continued to rise, with more than 10,000 reported each day over the past week.


Russia

Russiaís record high coronavirus death toll persisted for a second straight day on Saturday, as the number of new infections declined.

The state coronavirus task force reported 1,254 COVID-19 deaths, matching Fridayís tally.

The task force also reported 37,120 new confirmed cases. The daily new infections in recent weeks appear to have a downward trend but still remain higher than during previous surges of the virus.

The latest surge in infections and deaths comes amid low vaccination rates and lax public attitudes toward taking precautions. About 40% of Russiaís nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved a domestically developed COVID-19 vaccine months before most of the world.

On Sunday president Vladimir Putin announced that he had received a third dose of the COVID vaccine.

In total, the coronavirus task force has reported nearly 9.3 million confirmed infections and 262,843 COVID-19 deaths, by far the highest death toll in Europe.

Some experts believe the true figure is even higher.


Germany

Germans will be "vaccinated, cured or dead" by the end of the winter due to the current outbreak of Covid-19 infections in the country, Health Minister Jens Spahn warned Monday.

"Presumably by the end of the winter everyone will be vaccinated, cured or dead" because of the spread of the "very, very contagious" Delta variant, the minister said, once again calling on Germans to get vaccinated "urgently" in the face of an explosion in coronavirus cases in recent weeks.

Chancellor Angela Merkel already announced the government will introduce tighter COVID-19 restrictions on unvaccinated citizens.

In most regions, only the vaccinated and those who have recovered from the virus will be able to access public places such as restaurants or concert halls.

The countryís lower house of parliament the Bundestag voted on Thursday in favour of new restrictions. The plans include new restrictions for the workplace and public transport.

The measures were proposed by the three parties expected to form the next coalition: the Social Democrats (SPD), the liberals and the greens.

Health authorities issued a stark warning as 65,371 new cases were reported in a single day, confirming an upward trend experts have been warning about for weeks.

"We are currently heading toward a serious emergency," said Lothar Wieler, director of the Robert Koch Institute, Germanyís disease control agency. "We are going to have a really terrible Christmas if we donít take countermeasures now."

He called for a significant increase in vaccination rates to well above 75%, from 67.7% at present. In some German regions rates are as low as 57.6%.

Wieler also urged the closure of bars and clubs, an end to large-scale events and for many other places to be restricted to those with vaccine or recovery certificates.


Czech Republic

Coronavirus infections rates in the Czech Republic hit a new record for the second time this week, the Health Ministry said on Saturday.

It announced that the daily tally jumped to 22,936 on Friday, almost 500 more than the previous record set on Tuesday.

The countryís infection rate has risen to 929 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days.

In a worrying sign, 110 people died on Thursday, the ministry said, with the daily death toll surpassing 100 for the first time since April.

The government has approved new restrictions to tackle the surge, targeting the unvaccinated in an effort to increase a vaccination rate that is below the European Union average.

Starting Monday, most unvaccinated people will no longer be allowed to show negative coronavirus tests in order to attend public events, go to bars and restaurants, visit hairdressers, museums and similar facilities or use hotels.

Only people who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will remain eligible.

Overall, the nation of 10.7 million has registered almost 2 million cases with 32,005 deaths.


Greece

Greece announced a variety of new coronavirus-related restrictions on Thursday, aimed at putting additional pressure on those who have not yet been vaccinated.

They include tougher limits on access to non-essential indoor venues and seven-month expiration date on passes for over-60 year-olds who have not yet had a booster shot.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he believed the measures would help "those who are still hesitant" to change their minds and get vaccinated.

"From next Monday, all adult unvaccinated citizens, in addition to catering, will not enter other indoor areas, not even if they carry test results: In cinemas, theatres, museums or gyms," he said.

Greece is suffering its highest rate of confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic with deaths at their worst level in six months.

About two-thirds of all Greeks are now fully vaccinated and three-in-four adults. But the numbers vary wildly around the country: the northern regions, in particular, have a very low rate -- well under 50% in some places.

 

France

The country is going through its fifth wave with the number of infections steadily climbing. The average number of daily cases has increased, with more than 21,000 new cases reported on Friday (November 19).

The government said that the number of school classes forced to close -- over 4,000 -- was at its highest level since the term began in September.

The high authority for health also recommended giving booster doses (often a third dose) to everyone over 40 years old.

But the number of cases remains lower than in other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, attributed by the authorities to the success of the "health pass" introduced in July, as well as vaccine uptake, mask-wearing in indoor public places, and respect for social distancing.

The government and its scientific advisers believe that the measures already put in place are sufficient for now.

President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview with a local newspaper on Thursday (November 18) that locking down the unvaccinated is "not necessary in France".

"The countries that confine the unvaccinated are those that have not implemented the pass. This measure is therefore not necessary in France," said the head of state.

Some 75% of Franceís 67.4 million people are fully vaccinated, according to official figures on November 18.

"There are nine times more critical care admissions and deaths among the unvaccinated than among the vaccinated," Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said.

In a bid to encourage older people to come forward for a third dose of the vaccine, President Macron has said that from mid-December, a booster jab will be needed in order for people aged over 65 to have their health passes extended.

 

Sweden

The Swedish government has announced that from December 1 a health pass will be required to attend any event of more than 100 people. The COVID pass - attesting that the holder has either been fully vaccinated, tested negative over the previous 72 hours or recovered from the disease over the preceding six months - has so far only been used in Sweden for travel purposes.

The government also reversed its November 1 decision to stop testing fully vaccinated people.

Even though Sweden is currently recording few cases - the daily average over the previous seven days is 840 cases - the country "is not isolated from the rest of the world", health minister Lena Hallengren told reporters on Wednesday.

Restaurants and bars are exempt for the time being.

Sweden lifted almost all its anti-Covid restrictions by the end of September due to the progress of its vaccination programme and the good epidemic situation.

The country currently has an incidence rate of 85.8 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the past 14 days, according to the WHO - one of the lowest rates in Europe and far behind its neighbours Norway and Denmark, which are now experiencing a surge in cases after lifting most of their health measures.

 

Slovakia

As of Monday 22 November, unvaccinated people are banned from all non-essential stores and shopping malls in Slovakia.

They are also no longer allowed to attend any public event or gathering and will be required to test twice a week just to go to work.

"A merry Christmas does not mean a Christmas without COVID-19," warned Prime Minister Eduard Heger. "For that to happen, Slovakia would need to have a completely different vaccination rate."

He called the measures "a lockdown for the unvaccinated."

Just 45.3% of the 5.5 million population is fully vaccinated, and the country is recording record number of cases.

The government is ready to impose even more restrictions if the situation doesnít improve, the prime minister said.

Thousands in both Czech and Slovakian capitals, Prague and Bratislava, used Wednesdayís anniversary of the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution to rally against their governmentís upcoming coronavirus restrictions.

The protesters ignored social distancing and didnít wear masks.

 

Ireland

New COVID-19 restrictions came into force in Ireland on Thursday (November 18) due to high rates of infection that have put pressure on hospitals.

People were told to work from home unless attending the workplace is "absolutely necessary". A requirement for COVID-19 passes (based on vaccination or recovery) is extended to cinemas and theatres, while closing times for all on-licensed premises, including in hotels, will move to midnight.

With immediate effect, household close contacts who are fully vaccinated and showing no symptoms should restrict their movements until they have 3 negative antigen test results taken within a 5-day period.

Announcing the measures, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said that without the countryís massive vaccination campaign, Ireland would be in "total lockdown". Nearly 90% of people over 12 years old are fully vaccinated.

The measures follow stark warnings from health officials, who say modelling predicts a steep rise in case numbers and hospital admissions under the most pessimistic scenarios.


Italy

Italy has tightened its green pass rules in an attempt to slow down the infection rate before the December holiday season.

According to the new set of restrictions, trains can now be stopped in case any of the passengers appear to have COVID symptoms, while all taxi drivers are required to have a valid green pass, with the limit of two passengers seated in the back also becoming mandatory.

Italy has already updated its international travel rules in late October. The five-grade system can effectively ban entry for anything except work and family reasons depending on the tier of the country of origin, but most European countries are still in the middle "C" tier. However, this might change by December 15, when the rules are supposed to be updated.

The countryís authorities reported 44 COVID-related deaths on Monday (November 15), an uptick from 36 the day before. The number of infections went down, from 7,569 on Sunday to 5,144. Italy still has the second-highest overall death toll on the continent, with 132,819 deaths from COVID placing it right after the UK.

 

Ukraine

As the daily death toll in the country reached a record-breaking 832 on Tuesday (November 16), Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced that those who receive two jabs of the vaccine will be given a payment of 1,000 hryvnias, or about 33 euros in an attempt to alleviate vaccination reluctance.

The average nominal wage in Ukraine was around 13 thousand hryvnias earlier in 2021, while the minimum salary rests at six thousand, according to the countryís State Statistics Service.

Statistics on how many people received both doses vary greatly, with reports claiming that it stands anywhere between 20 and 28 per cent. The country of 41 million has been in the throes of the latest wave for weeks, forcing a reintroduction of significant restrictions in several cities, including Kyiv.

 

The Netherlands

In response to a spike in those testing positive for COVID-19, the Dutch caretaker government implemented a partial lockdown on November 13 that is due to run for at least three weeks, forcing bars and restaurants to close at 8 pm.

The soaring number of cases in this nation of 17.5 million comes despite more than 84% of the Dutch adult population being fully vaccinated. Cases rose sharply among children aged 4-12, most of whom have yet to be inoculated.

The country has seen protests in a number of cities against the measures, with unrest on Sunday for a third consecutive evening. Police said some 145 people have been arrested over the last three days.

Fifteen people were arrested in Rosendaal after protesters set fire to a primary school.

Demonstrators also set off fireworks and caused extensive damage in the cities of Enschede, Groningen, Leeuwarden in the north and Tilburg in the south.

Hospitals in the southern province of Limburg - the hardest-hit Dutch region - stated in a letter to the health ministry that they are "heading straight for a healthcare blockage and the entire system is grinding to a standstill."

 

Switzerland

After nearly 4,000 new cases were reported on November 12, Tanja Stadler, head of the countryís COVID-19 Task Force said that hospitals might have to admit up to 30,000 COVID patients this winter, according to the Swiss outlet Le Matin.

About 64.9% of the alpine countryís population is fully vaccinated according to the latest figures. Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers demonstrated against a government-led vaccination drive, with riot police having to protect public vaccination sites in places like Zurich.
Bulgaria

Bulgaria has topped the list of countries worldwide in the number of COVID-related deaths. With the latest figure reaching 283.68 deaths per one million inhabitants, the wave in this Balkan country has still not relented.

The grim situation has deteriorated to the point where hospitals in Bulgaria are forced to temporarily suspend all non-emergency surgeries so more doctors can treat the influx of COVID-19 patients.

At the same time, parents across the country have protested a measure demanding that schoolchildren be tested once a week in order for in-person classes to resume. Protests against the Green Passes also entered their third week.

 

Romania

Like Bulgaria, Romania has found itself in the throes of a deadly spike in cases, with reports claiming that the morgue in the main hospital in the capital has run out of space for the dead in recent days.

Five European countries -- Italy, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Poland -- offered to help Romania treat as many patients in critical condition as possible, and just last Wednesday, four Romanians with severe forms of COVID-19 were flown to Italy.

Although the cases seem to be on a downward trajectory, the current bi-weekly average of 724.42 citizens testing positive for COVID-19 is still considered to be grave in a country of 19.29 million.​


Serbia

In Serbia, the rate of fully vaccinated citizens has slowed down significantly since May and remains at 43%, despite the countryís initial success in procuring a large number of vaccines by several different producers as early as January.

The country of almost 7 million has been averaging at least five thousand cases per day since mid-September.

The government responded by reintroducing some light measures, such as bars, cafes, restaurants, and other public venues requesting their guests present a COVID pass after 10 pm.

Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabićís statement last month that she "doesnít believe in [going back to] the same measures that were implemented before the vaccines," pondering the purpose of the vaccines altogether if lockdowns continue to be a necessity, has come under heavy scrutiny.

Some doctors are now threatening to sue her due to conditions in certain hospitals that forced the medical workers to focus exclusively on treating COVID patients. Brnabić has rejected that criticism, saying on Thursday that she is proud of her governmentís response.

Meanwhile, authorities at the graveyard in Belgrade say they have an average of 65 burials a day, compared to between 35 and 40 before the pandemic. Gravediggers are forced to bury people on Sundays - which typically they didnít - to handle the load.


Croatia

Soaring infections appear to have been a wake-up call to some extent in Croatia, which saw unusually large lines of people waiting for vaccines in recent days.

Authorities said on Wednesday (November 17) that more than 15,000 people received their first dose a day earlier - a significant jump after vaccinations had all but halted in the Adriatic country of 4.2 million.

At the same time, anti-vaxxers held vigils in a number of cities in the country after the government announced plans to introduce mandatory COVID passes for government and public employees, including school teachers.

Some protesters were seen wearing a yellow Star of David, imitating those forced on the European Jewry in Nazi Germany, local outlet Index.hr reported.


North Macedonia

The countryís health authorities might have to bin about 30 thousand doses of AstraZeneca vaccines that are about to expire, according to local outletsí reports on Tuesday (November 16).

The soon-to-be inert AstraZeneca doses are only used as a second vaccine for those age 60 and above, which further complicates the issue.

Health experts in the country are warning that North Macedonia might be headed towards a major peak in the upcoming weeks, especially considering a relatively low vaccination rate of 37% and the ongoing waves in neighbouring countries like Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria.


Latvia

Last month, Latvia introduced a nighttime curfew from 20:00 to 05:00 due to the worsening coronavirus situation in the Baltic country of 1.9 million. Most stores were closed, and indoor and outdoor gatherings, including entertainment, sports, and cultural events werenít allowed.

As these restrictions ended on Monday (November 15), the government has now revised its measures, allowing for those with certificates proving vaccination or recovery to access all services.

Restrictions are still in place for the unvaccinated, who can as of Monday only do basic things outside of their homes, such as grocery shopping or travel with public transportation.

The country also banned unvaccinated MPs from attending parliament and participating in meetings.

Latvia is still seeing a significant number of cases emerge, with a bi-weekly average of 1,533.33 testing positive per 100,000 inhabitants.


Denmark

On November 12, Denmark reintroduced its digital pass as it declared COVID-19 "a socially critical disease" once again amid an increase in cases.

For the next month, a valid pass is mandatory in order to enter nightclubs or cafes or to be seated indoors in restaurants.

People above the age of 15 must show their pass when attending outdoor events where the number of people exceeds 2,000.

The Danish pass app shows a QR code with a green banner if the holder is fully vaccinated or received the first dose at least two weeks ago, has recently recovered from COVID-19 or has had a negative test in the past 72 hours. A paper version is also available.

 


Additional sources • AP, AFP

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